Today, Crossroads GPS, the conservative group founded by Karl Rove, released a new political ad criticizing President Obama, which will be aired widely across the country. The ad is also the work of Larry McCarthy, the producer of the questionable “Willie Horton” ad from 1988 — the one that played on racial fears by featuring images of a scary-looking African-American man as it accused Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. With a pedigree like that, you might expect to see some bloodshed in this offering. But the Crossroads ad, called “Basketball,” shows surprising subtlety compared to other
ads prominent Republicans and the Tea Party have been offering voters of late. The Tea Party and other Republican groups should take note: “Basketball” plays well because it follows the basic rules of persuasion: Engage the audience’s reason and emotions.
The ad’s tone is surprisingly levelheaded. It doesn’t require you to hate President Obama, or to believe that he is evil, or a Muslim, or a radical bent on turning us all Socialist, or any of the other nonsense that the Tea Party or the more extreme corners of the Republican Party like to espouse. Instead, it tells the story of a pretty mother who loves to watch her kids play basketball. This mother says that she “supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. He promised change.” She liked him, she says. That rhetorical approach will keep audience members who also harbor a soft spot for
President Obama listening. The ad is illustrating a basic rule of classical rhetoric best articulated by the Greek historian (and political analyst) Thucydides, and well-known to successful trial lawyers: Don’t risk losing the confidence of your audience by picking a needless battle. Instead, figure out what you absolutely must argue in order to win and argue the heck out of that.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the pretty mother ages and the kids grow up. We see that her kids are now grown adults who “can’t find jobs to get their careers started, and I can’t afford to retire. And now we’re all living together again.” This is a terrific way to engage our emotions. “Basketball” puts its finger on exactly the fears that plague many Americans right now — the terror of students equipped with college degrees, weighed down by enormous debt and no job prospects; the anxiety of parents who see no way to ever stop working. If the writers had added in a dad who’d been laid off and now
can’t find a job because of his age, they would have achieved a perfect trifecta of the real struggles that many Americans face right now. And the neat visual effect of fast-forwarding the family from an idyllic childhood period to a more-bleak present provides compelling drama.
“Basketball” also employs a clever rhetorical twist by turning Obama’s 2008 election messages — “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can” — on their head. The mom tells us, “He promised change, but things have changed for the worse.” “Change” is something the family has suffered, not enjoyed, as the kids have grown and their prospects have shrunk. “Basketball” reminds voters of the disappointment they may have experienced in the years following the 2008 election.
The ad is weakest in terms of logic. Several claims are factually inaccurate, such as its declaration that the president’s health care law — most of which has not yet taken effect — has made health insurance more expensive. It accuses the president of “spending like our credit cards have no limits,” while ignoring the disastrous economic decisions made before Obama took office that arguably necessitated the spending. The ad also falsely implies that the president taxes and spends because he is unaware of the pain of the average American family, when in fact he would argue that this is what motivates his policies.
But “Basketball” is memorable because it strikes a tone that will resonate with many viewers, particularly those experiencing the hardships that are featured in it. It is an effort to reach the middle— those undecided voters who want things to change for the better, but are not yet sure how to make that happen. “Basketball” shows how negative ads work best — not by shouting and sarcasm, but by reason and empathy.
Molly Bishop Shadel is a professor of oral advocacy and rhetoric at the University of Virginia School of Law and is co-author of “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.”