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.”
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.