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Sat May 10, 2014
She Votes

Easy On The Ears: GOP Ads Adapt To Reach Women Voters

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 9:02 am

It's only April, but it looks and sounds like October. More than $80 million has been spent on political advertising in only about a dozen Senate battleground states.

About half that amount is targeted at women.

Many ads aimed at women take the most obvious approach: Republicans putting their female candidates front and center; Democrats attacking Republicans for waging a war on women.

But there's more to it than that, says Republican ad-maker Ashley O'Connor.

"Women process information differently than men," O'Connor says. "So much of political advertising focuses on conflict, and facts and figures, and I think that we're already starting to see, when reaching women voters, there's just new techniques need to be used, and a different tone, and more storytelling."

O'Connor singles out an ad aired by Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon seeking the Republican nomination for Senate in Oregon. In the ad, a woman tells the story of Webby operating on her daughter.

"Dr. Wehby was going to open her back and reconstruct my daughter's entire lower spine," the woman says. "She just hugged me and kissed my forehead, and she said, 'It's going to be OK, sweetheart. I've got her, and I am going to see you in a couple of hours.' "

"This is a 60-second ad and it's not particularly issue-driven," O'Connor says of the spot. "It sort of goes to this point that when talking to women, I don't think you necessarily have to be delivering factual information to move them. I think connecting with their heart and really trying to build emotion is more effective."

That may sound a little sexist, but appealing to emotions is what all effective advertising does. And the fact that Republicans are trying to do it is the biggest new development in political ads aimed at women.

Aiming For Tough, But Not Harsh

In a typical Republican superPAC ad from 2012, for instance, a man intones a list of Democrats' alleged failings over a soundtrack of ominous music: "Family incomes down, 40 percent living paycheck to paycheck, and Obamacare's new tax on middle-class families."

This year, the GOP has ditched the baritone narrator, the scary music and the facts and figures. Instead, the party is doing what Democrats have been doing for many years: using softer voices and more personal stories.

A Republican superPAC ad running this year features a woman who narrates in a conversational tone: "People don't like political ads. I don't like them either. But health care isn't about politics. It's about people. It's not about a website that doesn't work ... It's about people, and millions of people have lost their health insurance. ... Obamacare doesn't work."

Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president with Kantar Media, praises the ad.

"It's a very clean ad," Wilner says. "The tone of the ad, her tone, is very sympathetic and very easy on the ears. It's a new kind of attack ad, and it is not a harsh ad in any way, but the message itself is very tough."

Endorsed By Wives, Moms And Daughters

There are other trends this year that both parties hope will appeal to women. Family members are everywhere in ads, especially moms and daughters.

In a Florida special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Trey Radel, candidate Curt Clawson's mother appears in an ad to endorse her son. In the same race, Paige Kreegel's wife criticizes "nasty" campaign ads.

In Iowa, the children of Monica Vernon, also running for Congress, promise their mom "will never stop working for the middle class."

Not only is the content of the ads changing, but so are the places in which they appear. Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic ad-maker, says it's no longer enough to air an ad on daytime TV, or even the nightly news, to reach women.

"We are using data and analytics to try to determine what are the actual programs that women are watching, Margolis says. "And to try to determine, as well, what are those issues, for that particular group, that are going to be the most resonant, that they're going to find the most compelling."

Wherever women are digitally, Margolis says, political ads will find them. A woman who is a Democratic target voter in a Senate battleground state might see campaign ads all day online.

"When you log on in the morning to check the weather, there's a pretty good chance that somebody is going to be talking to you right there," he says.

Your browsing history can say a lot about you, Margolis says, including your gender, interests and issues that matter to you.

The Shoot-'Em-Up Approach

These new ways of targeting women voters, with content tailored to women's concerns, are becoming common. But there's always an exception to the rule. Take the much-imitated ad in which a male politician attacks — literally — the IRS code or a piece of legislation passed by President Obama.

This week, that macho format was adopted by Republican Joni Ernst, a pistol-packing mama running for Senate in Iowa. Ernst already earned attention for an ad about her experience castrating hogs. In the new ad, Ernst rides a Harley to a gun range, and fires off six shots at a target.

"Joni Ernst will take aim at wasteful spending," the narrator says. "And once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni's gonna unload."

It seems that even the shoot-'em-up TV ad has achieved gender equality, for better or worse.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This election year, both Republicans and Democrats are working especially hard to win over women, who make up 53 percent of the American electorate. In the finale to our week-long series She Votes, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson examines how political ads are changing to appeal to women.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's only May, but it looks and sounds like October. Over $80 million has already been spent on political advertising in only about a dozen Senate battleground states. About half of that amount has been targeted at women. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It comes down to respect for women and our lives. So Congressman Cory Gardner's history promoting harsh antiabortion laws is disturbing.

TERRI LYNN LAND: Congressman Gary Peters and his buddies want you to believe I'm waging a war on women. Really? Think about that for a moment.

LIASSON: That's the most obvious approach - Republicans putting their female candidates front and center, Democrats attacking Republicans for waging a quote "war on women." But there's more to it than that, says Republican ad maker Ashley O'Connor.

O'CONNOR: Women process information differently than men. And so much of political advertising focuses on conflict and facts and figures and I think that we're already starting to see, when reaching women voters, there's just new techniques that need to be used and a different tone and more storytelling and different messages.

LIASSON: O'Connor singles out an ad aired by Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon who's seeking the Republican nomination for Senate in Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Dr. Wehby was going to open her back and reconstruct my daughter's entire lower spine. She just hugged me and kissed my forehead, and she said it's going to be OK, sweetheart. I've got her, and I'm going to see you in a couple hours.

O'CONNOR: It's a 60 second ad, and it is not particularly issue driven. It's a testimonial of a parent of one of the children she had saved. And it sort of goes to this point that when talking to women I don't think you necessarily have to be delivering factual information to move them. I think connecting with her heart and really try to build emotion is more effective.

LIASSON: That may sound a little sexist, but appealing to emotions is what all effective advertising does. And the fact that Republicans are trying to do that is the biggest new development in political ads aimed at women. Here's a typical Republican Super PAC ad from 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Family incomes down, 40 percent living paycheck to paycheck and Obamacare's new tax on middle class families.

LIASSON: This year, the GOP has ditched the baritone narrator and the scary music. Instead, they're doing what Democrats have been doing for many years - using softer voices and more personal stories. Here's a Republican Super PAC ad running this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: People don't like political ads. I don't like them either. But healthcare isn't about politics, it's about people. It's not about a website that doesn't work. It's not about poll numbers or approval ratings. It's about people, and millions of people have lost their health insurance. Millions of people can't see their own doctors, and millions are paying more and getting less. Obamacare doesn't work. It just doesn't work.

LIASSON: Elizabeth Wilner is with Kantar Media's campaign media analysis group.

ELIZABETH WILNER: It's a very clean ad. The tone of the ad - her tone - is very sympathetic and very easy on the ears. It's a new kind of attack. And it is not a harsh ad in any way, but the message itself is very tough.

LIASSON: There are other trends this year that both parties hope will appeal to women. Family members are everywhere, especially moms and daughters.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

CURT CLAWSON: I'm Curt Clawson.

CHERIE CLAWSON: I'm Curt's mom.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: My husband, Page, is running for Congress. The campaigns have become so nasty.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: And while we love having Mark at home, we know we share him with every Alaskan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: And it's why Monica Vernon is running for Congress because she'll never stop working for the middle class. We know because she's our mom.

LIASSON: And it's not just the content of the ads that are changing, it's where the ads appear.

JIM MARGOLIS: We are using data and analytics to try to determine what are the actual programs that women are watching. And to try to determine, as well, what are those issues for that particular group that are going to be the most resonant, that they're going to find the most compelling?

LIASSON: That's Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic ad maker. He says it's no longer enough to air an ad on daytime TV or even the nightly news and expect to reach women. Now wherever women are digitally, political ads are there too. Here's how Margolis describes what I might see if I was a democratic target voter in a Senate battleground state.

MARGOLIS: When you log on in the morning to check the weather, there's a pretty good chance that somebody is going to be talking to you right there. And depending on what kind of site you have been on before, there's probably a pretty good probability that we're going to know that you're a woman.

And we're going to know maybe some of the kinds of things that interest you - education, for example, or maybe reproductive rights. And even the kind of website that you're on is going to tell us a lot about who you are and the kind of things that you care about because we all are increasingly turning to the same kind of sites that others who have similar views go to.

LIASSON: So there are new ways of targeting women voters and new content tailored to women's concerns. But there's always an exception to the rule. Take the much imitated ad where a male politician attacks, literally, the IRS code or a piece of legislation passed by President Obama. This week, that macho format was adopted by Republican Joni Ernst, a pistol packing mama running for Senate in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Joni Ernst will take aim at wasteful spending, and once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni is going to unload.

LIASSON: So even the shoot 'em up TV ad has achieved gender equality, for better or worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mom, farm girl and a lieutenant colonel who carries more than just lipstick in her purse.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR news, Washington.

SIMON: If you missed any part of our series on women in politics this week, you can go to our website and you can listen to each piece individually or you can binge listen to the entire series. Just go to npr.org/shevotes. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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