The Olympic ad battle

Are Barack Obama's cheery ads more in tune with the atmosphere of the coverage from Beijing than John McCain's?

Published August 14, 2008 2:54PM (EDT)

Barack Obama's campaign released a new, warm and fuzzy ad Thursday to run during the second week of the Olympics, in all 50 states starting Monday.

"It begins with a plan," the narrator says, as construction workers start building a house. "A plan to build. A plan to put hardworking Americans first." (By the time the ad is over, the house is finished, though the time-lapse shot makes it look like the whole thing was built in a day.) The ad ticks off six priorities for Obama that are sure to please viewers almost as much as watching Michael Phelps win gold -- growing the economy, ending tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs overseas, creating jobs, boosting education, cutting taxes and attaining energy independence. (Presumably world peace was left off the list because the ad is about the economy.) His first Olympic spot was equally cheery, promising that green technology could not only free the U.S. from Mideast oil but also create good jobs for thousands of Americans.

By contrast, the ads John McCain is running during the Olympics -- which, at least on Washington TV and cable, seem to appear much more frequently than Obama's -- are downright scary. "Is the biggest celebrity in the world ready to help your family?" McCain's narrator asks, as a freakishly close photo of Obama fills the screen. It's got all the classic signs of an attack ad -- the sinister music in the background, the black-and-white shots, the loaded questions.

As NBC's political tip sheet First Read wondered earlier this week, though, are Obama's ads a better fit with the gauzy coverage the Olympics are getting -- and the other ads that pop up during commercial breaks? You've got Home Depot congratulating itself for employing Olympic athletes; Coke congratulating you for subsidizing the U.S. teams by drinking its soda; Morgan Freeman congratulating Phelps for being part fish (in what I think, but can't really remember, is a Visa ad). And then you've got McCain, implying that Obama would burden your kids with debt and unemployment. There's no question that McCain's ads are working; Republicans have told me the McCain campaign is very pleased with its new "attack Obama" strategy and doesn't plan to change it. But there is some risk that sticking with harsh ads during the Olympics might backfire. As First Read put it, "They stuck out because they were darker than every other ad. The good news: The ads stuck out. The bad news: The ads stuck out. It's a gamble."

You can check out the new Obama ad here:

Update: Several commenters have noted that the McCain ads that helped pull Obama down in the polls were running before the Olympics. A good point; I should have said McCain's broad strategy was working, to make it clear that I didn't mean the specific Olympic ad.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.