Interpreting the hidden messages in Franken’s new TV ad

The Al Franken reelection campaign has released its second TV ad, which the campaign says will be aired with a significant statewide purchase of airtime.

Holly Peterson of Ham Lake, the star of the 60-second ad, relates the story of her illness with the potentially fatal fungal meningitis, possibly caused by tainted medication from a “compounding pharmacy.” The emotional peak of the ad occurs when Peterson describes lying in bed, watching news of the outbreak from which 16 people eventually died, realizing that she has the same illness, and “All I could think of was: I had a 17-year-old son who I was a single mother to.”

Franken is neither seen nor mentioned during the first 30 seconds of the ad, then appears in a shot with Peterson, sitting at her kitchen table, while she expresses her gratitude that Franken wrote and got passed a new law to crack down on the “compounding pharmacy” problem.

Then Peterson confesses, with a laugh, that she is “a Republican… by nature” but that when she saw Franken in action, she realized that “he really does care — for the people.”

Franken is seen in various sympathetic or hard-working shots during the second half of the ad but his voice is never heard until the closing when he confesses his approval of the message. Franken’s ads are being made by a team that includes Mandy Grunwald, veteran of many Democratic campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 2012 reelection. The same team worked on Franken’s 2008 campaign.

Here’s the ad:

Three University of Minnesota political scientists with different specialties reviewed the ad for me.

Larry Jacobs of the Humphrey School of Public Policy said Franken knows his opponents will seek to portray him as an out-of-touch, extremely liberal partisan Democrat. This ad is intended to inoculate him against those attacks by showing him as roughly the opposite of each of those qualities, as “a pragmatic, in touch, effective senator who is working on behalf of constituents, and also as non-partisan, working on the people’s business.”

Dan Myers, a newcomer to the U of M, does research on storytelling devices in political ads. The Holly ad, he said, was “a good example of using a story to put a human face on a relatively obscure policy area” in which Franken can highlight one of his concrete accomplishments. But when Peterson confesses that she’s “a Republican by nature,” the story becomes one of “transformation.” How does a Republican rise above the tendency to see everything through a partisan perspective and conclude that Franken, despite being a Democrat, is a good guy?  By seeing him up close working on something that affects her personally and that is a cause above partisanship. “Everyone is in favor of people not dying from bad drugs,” Myers said.

Howie Lavine, who specializes in political psychology, also emphasized Peterson’s “I’m-a-Republican” moment because of the impact it can have on the willingness of a skeptical viewer to believe her, exactly because her partisan instincts would not make her want to think so well of Franken as to make an ad for him.

If I could back up a second here: The first Franken campaign ad also featured a very genuine-looking woman testifying on Franken’s behalf. That woman, Elizabeth Abraham, owner of a Blaine-based small business, said that it was hard for her find workers with the skills her business needs. Franken had taken on the cause and was working on legislation to improve job training, among other things.

In reply, Republicans noted two things, meant to undermine the ad: The bill had not gone anywhere, and the woman in the ad was a donor to Democrats generally and the Franken campaign in particular, so, as Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden put it: Abraham “is hardly someone to give an unbiased opinion of Sen. Franken.”

Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken

It’s true that Abraham is a Democratic donor, and that the job-training ideas he introduced have not become law (although the Franken campaign says the ideas are still alive, some of them moving forward as part of larger bills). Also, the ad didn’t claim that the Franken bill had been enacted.

But in the second ad, those problems go away. Here we have a self-described “Republican by nature” who is thanking Franken for addressing a health problem that affected her, and she notes that the bill passed. Lavine’s first point was that by mentioning her Republican leanings, Peterson makes it more likely that viewers will be impressed with her praise for Franken’s work.

“One way to persuade the public in an ad, to persuade anyone of anything really, is to convince them that the person who is testifying has real reasons not to want to be persuaded,” Lavine said.

Peterson in general strikes a chord of sincerity, speaking “very convincingly, slowly and with great feeling,” Lavine said. And the ad tells a powerful narrative of a sick woman, worried that she might be dying and leaving her orphaned son behind. The words on the screen, talking about others who did die from the tainted drugs, further bolster Peterson’s persuasive power.

At a time when government seems unable to act to deal with problems, to make life better for Americans, “here’s a simple emotional counterexample,” Lavine said — and, of course, it puts Franken in a role as the one who acted, got something done, solved the problem.

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Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/22/2014 - 09:18 am.

    Franken’s ads appeal to women

    who, despite this woman’s claim, tend to vote democrat 60-40. So he’s probably preaching to the choir here to a potential voter who won’t show up at the polls in the necessary numbers to overcome the highly motivated conservatives (i.e., men). His real objective must be to motivate his base (women and minorities) to turn out, which will be a challenge.

    • Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 05/22/2014 - 04:38 pm.

      It would be a mistake to limit Franken’s base…

      To women and minorities, which he will most certainly carry. If the DFL does a good job of getting out the vote, he’s in, and not by nearly so close a margin as before.

    • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 05/22/2014 - 07:38 pm.

      Are you saying

      Women aren’t motivated? Or is it educated? Or is this woman incapable of intelligently understanding her own views? And she is unmotivated also? Thought she was planning to vote? Of course, people who are conservative don’t like women, elderly, minorities or educated people to vote. And students definitely don’t deserve votes as they are not entrenched and bitter. Much easier when angry white guys make all the rules.
      And Franken is reaching out to the other 70% of the electorate! which is what a democracy is for, everyone. Come and vote, and then accept the outcome. And make yourself happy trolling commentary lists.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 05/22/2014 - 08:05 pm.

      Not this year….

      after the last couple of years of enduring the GOP waging a war on women, I don’t know one that isn’t chomping at the bit to send as many of these misogynist creeps back to the private life as possible. Franken is a lock.

  2. Submitted by David Broden on 05/22/2014 - 11:00 am.

    Political Misleading Add–Taking credi while others Work

    The first Franken add is a total misrepresentation of the facts. MnScue system has addressed and is addressing matching votech and state college education programs to link directly with business/industry job needs. This redesign of education focus is providing the links and feed of workers that industry needs and has a very rapid response of education resouces being adapted to the specific needs. This is done entirely within the state and does not rely on more federal programs. While job training is a good approach the support to Mn small business needs is well under control by MNScu and the related programs. Give credit to the MNScu board and to Cancellor Steve Rosenstone and do not shift the credit to any political individual.

    Dave Broden

    • Submitted by Stephen Smith on 05/22/2014 - 11:39 am.

      Great point!

      Excellent point Dave! Thank you for bringing out the truth & making the public aware, especially those who are not in the manufacturing industry. We need more educated sentries to hold politicians who take credit for other peoples efforts accountable.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 05/22/2014 - 01:07 pm.

      Maybe you can explain..

      …why several sources confirm a shortage of skilled/trained manufacturing workers in this State? That would tend to show MnSCU is not adequately meeting needs. To claim otherwise seems rather partisan. Plus, when someone with “insider knowledge” badly mangles the spelling of the very institution that is supposedly the source of these good works, it makes me a skeptic.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/22/2014 - 03:24 pm.

      Does that mean . . .

      . . . that MnSCU gets no federal funding for its programs?

      I guess all those news releases touting federal grants will have to be rewritten.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/22/2014 - 12:48 pm.

    The challenge

    might well be twofold.

    So far, at least, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Tester’s assertion that the Franken ads are designed to appeal to women. I don’t know if the split is 60-40, as he asserts, but a majority of women do tend to vote Democratic. Assuming that to be the case, “the challenge” suggested by Mr. Tester may, in fact, be to get out the DFL vote. While that’s probably true, it’s also pretty low on the scale of political revelations, since “getting out the base” for an off-year election is a perpetual challenge for both political parties, and especially for the party in the White House.

    So, challenge #1 is to get out the DFL vote.

    Challenge #2 is for Republicans. They need to field a senatorial candidate that independent voters are likely to vote for because the Republican base represents a minority of the population, a minority that has been shrinking for a generation. By abandoning moderation and drinking deeply of the right wing Kool-Aid, the party has been fielding candidates who tend to rely on “dog-whistle” code words and other, similar means for whom the carefully-tailored television ad is the means of messaging. At this point, Republicans have as their leading candidate going into the primary a businessman whose vagueness about policy matters is approaching the legendary.

    So, challenge #2 might be to field a candidate who actually has something substantive to say that will not send people screaming for the exits.

    I make no predictions about either challenge.

  4. Submitted by Mike Downing on 05/22/2014 - 01:12 pm.

    Jobs, the economy and Obamacare

    No matter how good Franken’s spin doctors are they cannot escape the fact that a vote for Franken is a vote for Harry Reid.

    Franken cannot escape the fact that he was the 60th vote for the “ACA” and Franken, Reid, Pelosi and Obama promised us we can keep our plan, we can keep our doctor, we will save $2500 per family and the cost will be that of a cell phone bill. All of which were lies to the American people just to get it passed. Why would any rational & objective person trust Franken after these lies?

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 05/22/2014 - 03:18 pm.


      A vote for Franken is just that… a vote for Franken. You want to vote against Harry Reid? Move to Nevada.

    • Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 05/22/2014 - 04:31 pm.

      I don’t think he wants to deny he was the 60th vote for the ACA

      More and more people are realizing the right has been lying constantly and that the ACA, despite a stupid website, is working fine.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/22/2014 - 05:11 pm.

        I hope so

        We can’t wait to see his ad where he defends his vote for Obamacare and tells us how proud he is that he cast the deciding vote.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 05/23/2014 - 06:21 am.

          Outside of the bubble,

          the people that reside in reality know that won’t be an issue. Even the Repubs know that campaigning against the ACA is a non-starter. Their greatest fear is coming to pass…it’s working and people like it. Even dusting off Benghazi isn’t going to help you. Speaking of ads, when are we going to see the Republican ads bragging about support for trans vaginal ultrasounds, limiting reproductive rights and voting against pay equity for women? And you think it will be challenge to get women out to vote in November? You must not know any…

    • Submitted by Wilbur Simes on 05/22/2014 - 09:22 pm.

      ACA Attacks

      The key to attacking the ACA is to make the issue about anything other than the ACA. When Americans actually find out what it is they overwhelmingly support it.

    • Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 05/22/2014 - 09:33 pm.

      What about the other 59?

      Please explain how you discounted 59 other senators to identify Franken as the one who made ACA possible. Passage requires a cumulative total. It does not matter if Franken’s vote was number one, thirty-three or even sixty. If 59 other senators had not also voted Yea, the bill would not have passed.

    • Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 05/23/2014 - 10:57 am.

      No escape

      I don’t imagine that Senator Franken wants to ‘escape’ from his vote helping pass the Affordable Care Act. Millions of people have benefitted from the end of insurance company practices that allowed them to take our hard-earned money and then cancel us when a tough diagnosis came in. Millions have benefited from knowing that they cannot be turned down for coverage because of routine past health problems (my partner was once denied an insurance policy because of acid reflux and a successfully treated foot problem. No kidding, those were Health Partners reasons for rejection!!! No more.)

      AL Franken can be proud of his vote. ACA still needs improvement, though the GOP stands firmly against any fixes for the law, but on balance it is beginning to improve people’s lives and no Democrat need run scared from it’s passage.

  5. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 05/22/2014 - 04:23 pm.

    identifying with health care

    Sen. Franken stayed quiet for two years about the fraudulent claims President Obama made publicly at least 30 times that people could keep the health insurance policies they liked. We probably aren’t going to be able to keep our doctors either. Franken’s credibility about health care is shot. The “Holly” ad isn’t going to overcome Franken’s Obamacare liability.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/22/2014 - 06:52 pm.

      The FACT is

      (sorry to use a four letter word)
      that NO insurance company has ever guaranteed that it won’t change the terms of its plans, so no one has ever been able to ‘keep a plan that they liked’ if their insurance company stopped offering it.
      Nothing about the ACA changed this simple fact.
      And of course there has never been a law that a doctor can’t decide not to see a particular patient (they’re private business people).
      To be guaranteed health care would require a national health service — the ACA is only a small step in that direction. I am gratified that you seem to favor a move to a more socialist system.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/22/2014 - 06:46 pm.

    Sorry, My “Conservative” Friends

    But it’s time to step away from watching the weasel,…

    (which, if you can remember a few months back, led you SO FAR astray coming up on the last election),…

    stop running your elections and selecting your candidates based on wishful thinking,…

    and realize the truth,…

    “Obamacare” is already NOT a liability and becomes less so every day.

    By the time November arrives, those who continuously attack Democrats for “Obamacare,” are going to be undercutting their support among the vast majority of voters,…

    and encouraging those folks to vote FOR Democrats, not against them,…

    except, of course, for those who would rather die, and I mean that literally, not figuratively, than buy health insurance which might contribute to helping THOSE kinds of people.

    The same factors will be in play when you start trying to find a way to destroy former Sec. of State, Hillary Clinton, coming up on the 2016 presidential elections.

    The more you seek to attack her and undercut her, the more you try to dig up fake scandals, the more you will turn people against you and toward her AND the Democratic party.

    Of course you could actually seek to develop new policies and ideologies that would improve the lives and opportunities and enhance the economic and environmental stability of this nation and its citizens (real ones, not the garbage talking points even the most disinterested voter has now come to realize that you continuously and so dishonestly spew),…

    but as was the case here in Minnesota when the Republicans led the legislature, so it is nationally,…

    the Republican Party, as it currently exists, cannot create anything. It has only the power to destroy.

    Americans have reached the point (even in the South) where they know death when they see it.

    Indeed, with their state governments’ refusal to accept the Federal Medicare expansion, many of them have actually experienced the death of friends, loved ones, and acquaintances at the hands of the Republicans.

    Without a clear and visible change in the hearts and minds and souls, and imaginations; a change which leads to a change in the policies and ideologies of the Republican Party,…

    despite all the very human imperfections of the Democratic Party, the populace will vote Democratic and, thereby, “choose life.”

  7. Submitted by David Broden on 05/22/2014 - 07:38 pm.

    A Response to Critique of Prior Comments-MnSCU Focus

    The MnSCU 2014 and beyond vision is to enable links to current and emerging businesses across Mn. MnSCU has multiple examples of how this has and is being done- and businesses to endorse and commend the work of MnSCU in responding to urgent workforce needs. I and others who have met with the MnSCu staff and leadership have seem these results and they are real in place and expanding. This is work of the citizens of Mn not federal complex programs. Before criticizing the results I have cited I recommend that perhaps a visit to the MnSCU offices and meeting or a visit to some MnSCU schools will show a different picture and will confirm that MnSCU is working and focused to meeting the needs of Mn as a Mn driven initiative– compare Mn to other states and you will see we are at the top in the matching of capability to jobs.

    Dave Broden

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/23/2014 - 12:27 pm.

      Anyone who has worked in a large organization

      knows that what the ‘staff and leadership’ say has often only a tenuous relationship to what the rank and file actually do.
      As I’ve said, I was a member of that rank and file for 40 years — I have an idea of what the reality is.
      It is true that some schools, colleges and departments are actively involved in targeted job training; for others it’s a minor concern.
      There is considerable pressure from the MnSCU ‘leadership’ (past tense: MnScrod 😉 to seek outside funding, including both Federal and private (corporate) funding.
      One University president characterized his institution as having gone from ‘state supported to state assisted to state located’.
      That’s why the proportion of costs covered by tuition has doubled (from 1/3 to 2/3); a factor in the increase in student debt load on graduation. Overall, Minnesota has cut its support for higher education drastically, despite a few high visibility partnerships with businesses.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/23/2014 - 01:20 pm.

      Well and good

      That doesn’t make Senator Franken’s ad “misleading.” He is the prime sponsor of a bill that would target grants for partnerships between two-year schools and businesses for job training ,internships, apprenticeships etc. MnSCU is, I’m sure, doing good work in that direction, but its efforts are not the only ones out there.

  8. Submitted by Wilbur Simes on 05/22/2014 - 09:29 pm.

    Hidden Messages?

    Isn’t the headline a bit alarmist? I don’t think there’s anything “hidden” at all about the messages, no more hidden than the old SNL Kevin Nealon “Mr. Subliminal” character. Or are we really so dumb that we need PhDs to explain what is hidden in plain sight?

    Nothing hidden here. Move along.

  9. Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/23/2014 - 05:58 am.

    By all means

    Push that ACA issue conservatives. Perhaps we can learn what it is you’ll be replacing it with should you succeed in its repeal. Its only been about five years that you’ve claimed a plan beyond “stay the course” and I’m sure many folks would like to know. Then again, when they find out you’ve got nothing, you will reap the consequences, but don’t let that discourage you.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/23/2014 - 07:31 am.


    I find it interesting that Al is going with anecdotal ads. The comparable McFadden health care anecdotal was all about McFadden’s kid and how his father pulled his stitches instead of going to a nurse.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/23/2014 - 08:49 am.

    Focus groups

    I am something of a yellow dog Democrat. I door knock for DFler’s. I feel a compulsion to attend DFL conventions, in much the same way lemmings feel an compelled to visit cliffs. I named my first born, Hubertina, and the boy has never forgiven me for calling him Orville. That said, something I have noticed in recent years, is how little I disagree with what Republicans have to say. I listen to McFadden, and find myself, almost involuntarily nodding in agreement. I to, in a vague sort of way, want things to be better. As I progress further in my personal journey into dotage, I have been wondering, have I become Republican minded? Have I been watching too much Fox News? Has my unrequited love for Megyn Kelly negatively affected my thought processes? After giving the matter careful thought, I have reached the preliminary conclusion that it isn’t actually Republican thought that attracts me, it’s Republican focus groups. I have learned that the key to understanding the appeal of the Republican Party to today’s electorate is not to focus on what they do, heaven forbid, or what they say, which is almost just as bad, but instead to concentrate on what the focus groups say, as reflected in Republican commercials and Republican talking points. Republicans, I have learned, however inept they might be in governing, have learned how to hire the very best in focus groups, the ones, as it turns out, sound just like Democrats. The conclusion I have reached is that is that while what they do in office is very Republican, what we think of “Republican mindedness”, is in fact the default mindset, of the DFL, not the way Republicans think, but the way Republicans think DFLer’s think.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/23/2014 - 12:30 pm.

      In other words

      the Republicans are good at describing an ideal state of affairs, but have no real world clues how to achieve it.

  12. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 05/23/2014 - 10:50 am.


    So, Mr. McFadden (and GOP operatives), we are to believe that anyone you feature in a campaign ad will not have financial ties to Republicans, or your campaign, and can be utterly trusted “to give an unbiased opinion” of you?


  13. Submitted by Jon Lord on 05/28/2014 - 06:01 pm.


    I like Al. He’s got the makings of a Statesman!

  14. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/28/2014 - 06:04 pm.

    Here’s a message Al would LOVE to hide:

    First Obamacare Premium Notices For 2015 Show Double Digit Increases

    Here’s another that he’s getting some help from Obama himself to hide:

    “The Obama administration has quietly adjusted key provisions of its signature healthcare law to potentially make billions of additional taxpayer dollars available to the insurance industry…”

    “The move was buried in hundreds of pages of new regulations issued late last week.”

    Evidently not buried quite deep enough….pity, that.

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