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Music in political ads

Ask most TV viewers about what they think of political ads on TV, and they will say that they hate them. But political TV ads have been shown to be effective in validating voters’ leanings toward or against a particular candidate, or for sowing seeds of doubt about a particular candidate. (See Daniel Stevens, Barbara Allen, John Sullivan, and Dean Alger, “What’s Good for the Goose is Bad for the Gander: Negative Political Advertising, Partisanship and Turnout,” Journal of Politics, 70: 2 (2008) 1–15, for example.)

While much has been written on the visual style of political ads, very little has been written on the use of music in ads. A recent article in The Washington Post describes the music in ads in generic terms, like “fun,” “inspirational,” “ominous,” “patriotic,” “relaxing,” “sad,” “somber,” and “upbeat.” These descriptors break down into musical styles, which often associate themselves with demographic and socio-graphic groups in society, and expressive genres that convey emotional states, “upbeat,” “sad,” “inspirational,” etc., in music.

Political ads on TV can be divided into three general types:

  1. Advocacy ads are those that endorse a candidate and put him/her and/or his/her policies in the best possible light,
  2. Negative or Attack ads are those that attack a candidate on personal and/or policy grounds,
  3. Contrast ads are a sort of hybrid of both previous models, usually attacking an opposing candidate, and then affirming the supporting candidate, or quickly alternating back and forth.

Contrast Ads

The contrast ads feature an interesting juxtaposition of music.

“Believe in America”

Mitt Romney’s “Believe in America” ad opens with text and images of an Obama speech in 2008 juxtaposed with pictures of worn-out buildings, etc., in a grainy, washed out color. Undergirding his words on the economy are ominous electronic rumbles, reminiscent of late 20th century avant-garde electronic works (by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Vladimir Ussachevsky). The music is ominous and sinister sounding, with its soft, low and rumbling texture, and abrasive electronic, dissonant sounds.

The images and sounds give way from Obama to candidate Mitt Romney, in rich color, his image intermingled with American citizens, both young and old, posing at work, or with flags. The sound of the ad is Romney giving a speech about American jobs, accompanied by music that is hymn-like, hopeful and inspirational.

The Romney ads use musical expressive genres in a stereotypical way — music of his opponent is dissonant, ominous, and sinister, while his music is consonant, hopeful, and even inspirational.

A closer look at the music shows that the music goes deeper in meaning when considering the musical styles counterposed in the ad. The “Obama music” is dissonant, electronic 20th century avant garde: often considered intellectually effete, somewhat degenerate, and secular, and thus out of touch with most ordinary American’s musical tastes. Romney’s music, on the other hand, is a hymn: a sacred, consonant, patriotic anthem that is identifiable to “hard-working” white Christian Americans.

“The Choice”

President Obama’s ad, “The Choice”, features the well-dressed president speaking directly to the camera in a nicely appointed room — presumably a room in the White House. He begins by denigrating his opponent’s policies, claiming the policies have been tried before and have failed. Meanwhile, a faint soundtrack featuring a piano playing repetitive chords is heard. As Obama changes his text to speak on his own policies, the images change to Obama mingling with ordinary Americans, at a dinner table, in an office, and in an auto factory. The music swells slightly, adding bass, light drums, and guitar.

Obama’s ad uses a musical style that can be called “light rock,” a style that maintains an upbeat, rock-like rhythm, and harmonic structure, but is a less loud version of mainstream rock. This style also seems “intimate,” “contemporary,” or at the very least, “nondescript,” or even “non-offensive.” The increase in texture (by adding more musical instruments) and the slight increase in volume add a touch of “inspiration” and “hopefulness” to the mix. The light rock style also conveys these expressive genres.

While both Obama and Romney ads use the same basic approach in their contrast ads, Obama’s is more subtle, with less contrast, while Romney’s is perhaps more effective for TV. Romney’s ad uses more extensive production techniques, and features a greater contrast of musical style and expressive genre to contrast himself with the president.

Attack Ads

Both 2012 presidential campaigns used attack ads (some would say excessively) as a campaign strategy. While the contrast ads above use music in a somewhat traditional manner, both presidential campaigns also used music in a unique, ironic way in some attack ads.


The Obama campaign’s ad, “Firms”, shows Governor Romney singing “America the Beautiful” at one of his campaign rallies. During the song, the images shift away from the Governor to empty factories, boardrooms, and then to landscapes of Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands (suggesting the locations of Romney alleged hidden bank accounts).

The sound design is particularly effective in this ad, with reverb added to Romney’s singing to signify the emptiness and desolation of the landscapes. Some have also speculated on whether Romney’s singing was “auto-tuned” to be “out of tune.”

“Political Payoffs and Middle Class Layoffs”

The Romney campaign countered with an ad featuring Obama singing an excerpt of Al Green’s 1971 hit song, “Let’s Stay Together” at a campaign rally.

The ad opens with a dark, blurry image of people aimlessly walking in slow motion, with a text about unemployed Americans. A faint whistling sound is heard. Then, a grainy image of President Obama appears as he sings a line from Al Green’s song, as supporters cheer him on. The ad ends with text that says: “The Obama Record: Political Payoffs and Middle Class Layoffs” while ominous, electronic sounds emanate from the screen, followed by a sub-bass thud.

The lavish production values of these ads hint to the expense that political ads accrue.

Luckily, we voters won’t have to watch for another four years.

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