The Best Ads of 2014 – Oh Really?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 11, 2014 · 1:02 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, I noticed a piece in Time headlined “The Best 6 Political Campaign Ads of the Summer (So Far).”

I’ve written columns about “the best” this or “the worst” that, so I’m certainly not opposed to columns that list personal assessments or even personal preferences. But my reaction to the Time magazine piece was quite different. The more I thought about it, the less I liked the headline and the article.

I should note that the writer of the piece did not write that the six ads cited were the best six ads — as the headline indicated — but only referred to “our take on 2014’s top 6 political ads of the summer.” In addition, the sub-headline teased about “six of this season’s political ads,” language that was also different from the article’s title.

Anyway, the piece listed and described six ads that were either the top ads, the best ads or merely among the best.

The ads were interesting or entertaining or both, I thought. I liked a number of them, but didn’t think all of them were great. But the problem is that even if I did love all six of them, did that make them the best ads of the summer?

I don’t think so.

The purpose of political ads is not to entertain you, make you angry or make you sad. Political ads are not meant to be evaluated as artistic works, though one could, of course, evaluate them that way.

The purpose of a political commercial is to get you to support one candidate and vote for that candidate. (Often, of course, the technique involves discrediting the opponent.) That is, great ads — the “best” ads — create or change vote intentions, or motivate people to vote (or not to vote).

Whether an ad has done that is an empirical question. Yes, it can be a complicated question, given all that is going on in a race at any given time and during any given election cycle. But still, an ad isn’t good because someone likes it — unless that is very explicitly the measure being used. (Kudos to the Hotline’s Scott Bland for a recent piece, “The Most Effective Ad of 2012 is Back,” in which he referred to metrics that supported the spot's effectiveness.)

Many years ago I agreed to be part of a panel that judged political ads and direct mail pieces. The winners would be cited for their accomplishments and, presumably, have the right to crow about their accomplishments.

When the judging began, I realized that I was in no position to know which ads or mail pieces were the best, since I had no way to evaluate their impacts. In the end, I voted for the ones that I thought should have had the most impact — and I decided that I would never again judge political ads as being “the best” without some empirical measure of their success.

I should note that I started writing in this space about political ads in 1992. My first column was about “bounced checks ads,” a reference to the House Bank scandal.

Later that year, I wrote about the “The Ten Funniest Political Ads of ’92.” I started the column by noting that I was not using any objective measures to select the funniest spots of the year. I made it clear that the only measure was whether I thought an ad was funny.

I used a similar “methodology” for my Jan. 30, 1997, column on my favorite political ads of the 1996 campaign. I wrote: “These ads were not necessarily the ‘best’ spots of the cycle according to some artistic standard. Nor did they necessarily change votes. And I don’t have any idea if even a single one of them was recognized by the American Association of Political Consultants as among the ‘best’ ads of 1996. The spots that follow are, for various reasons, simply my favorites.”

When I consider the “effectiveness” of political ads, I always remember Charmin’s incredibly annoying Mr. Whipple TV commercials. People said they hated those ads, in which Mr. Whipple, the store clerk, warned shoppers, “don’t squeeze the Charmin,” as he was squeezing the apparently squeezably soft toilet paper. The ads remained on TV for a long time because, while viewers complained about them, they sold the product.

So the next time you read about an ad being “the best,” look for some measure of success, or at least an explicit statement from the author or award-giver that the superlative is merely a matter of personal opinion — like the Academy Awards or Grammy’s — and not a true measure of effectiveness.

And don’t fall into the trap of picking “the best” political ads without explaining what you mean by that — or having the data to make your case.