Attack ads have come to this: President Barack Obama makes babies cry.
That, in essence, is the message of a new commercial from a Republican super PAC called Americans for Job Security. And it is just one of several new advertisements that make a blunt appeal to women by using young children.
In the new ad, a worried mother jogs down the street, pushing her daughter in a stroller.
“I run to forget – forget about my problems,” she says. “Now we’re facing another recession. The future is getting worse under Obama.”
The camera then cuts to her daughter, whose face puckers as if she is about to burst into tears.
Another new ad from Mitt Romney features a mother reading to her infant daughter. Babies are one of the oldest props in politics and advertising, whether they are being kissed at campaign rallies or swaddled in fresh linens in a commercial for laundry detergent.
But this year babies have surfaced in a new role in the presidential campaigns, starring in ads that are designed to help Republicans chip away at the overwhelming support the president enjoys among women.
“Hey, it works for Johnson & Johnson, so there’s no reason it wouldn’t work in politics,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican advertising consultant.
In an advertising war that has already shattered records for both the number of commercials broadcast and the money spent, babies serve another useful purpose: They stand out amid the cacophony of ads that tend to blur together with their gloomy piano soundtracks and fretful-sounding announcers.
As blunt as some of these ads may sound – and they are almost always produced by teams of ad men, not ad women – there was copious research behind each line in the script. After months of conducting focus groups, Republican strategists found that appeals about the longevity of the deficit are more likely to stick with politically independent women when the issue is framed as a problem that their children will inherit.
Take a new ad from Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC. It begins with a montage of pictures of a little girl. There she is, a baby, playing with a toy. There she is holding her father’s hand as he leads her to kindergarten.
“Is her future getting better?” a female announcer asks.
‘Because women say so’
Republicans said their goal – and perhaps the key to this election – was to appeal to the 2012 version of the “soccer mom.” This is a woman burdened by worry – over precarious family finances, her aging parents or her adult children who have moved back into the house. “Why are jobs and the economy the No.1 issue? Because women say so, and remember women make up 52 percent of the electorate,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “This is not an abstraction for them. How am I going to pay my grocery bills? How am I going to pay my mortgage? There are constant reminders of the difficult situation we’re in.”
Commercials like these intentionally serve as yet another reminder that all is not well with the economy. But the trick is in not going overboard on the doom and gloom, both sides acknowledge. It is one thing to lay out a case for why Obama has failed women during his presidency, but those arguments can easily be defeated by their own hyperbole.
And some say these ads do exactly that.
“Scare tactics are nothing new, but with babies? This goes to new extremes,” said Linda Kaplan Thaler, a longtime advertising executive who has worked on the presidential campaigns for both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton and now runs the Madison Avenue firm Publicis Kaplan Thaler.
Kaplan Thaler said these ads could backfire, especially if women see them as being too preachy.
“It’s all about having a dialogue,” she said. “And when you are in a situation where you are telling voters something and not inviting a real conversation, you run the risk of voters having their own conversation.”
And these days that conversation often takes place on late-night comedy shows, where, Kaplan Thaler said, these ads could ultimately end up, as political punch lines.
‘Are you better off?’
With their measured appeals to voters who are disappointed in Obama’s leadership, the ads echo a theme that Republican groups started emphasizing last spring after finding that harsh attacks on the president were falling flat with swing voters, especially women.
Crossroads GPS, which was founded by Karl Rove and other top Republican strategists, produced an ad called “Basketball” that featured a woman talking about how her faith in the president was shaken by, among other things, the fact that the economy was still so bad that her unemployed adult children had to move back home.
That ad and the two new super PAC ads featuring babies were all produced by McCarthy Hennings Media, the firm run by Larry McCarthy. His notable work includes the 1988 Willie Horton commercial, which hurt Michael S. Dukakis by linking him to a notorious prison furlough program, and “Ashley’s Story” in 2004, which told the story of a young girl whose mother died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Republican strategists believe they have found a damning message in the baby ads – one that indirectly raises the question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
But some Republicans cautioned that without answering what logically flows from that question – will you be better off four years from now? – they will not break through.
“People know they’re in a hole,” said Castellanos, the Republican advertising consultant. “What they want is to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. They don’t want you to throw the baby in the tunnel.”