If there has been a consistent element to the 31 campaigns to ban same-sex marriage that have succeeded around the country in recent years it has been a late-in-the-game barrage of ads warning of dire consequences if gays and lesbians are allowed to wed.
The ads have proven reliably effective in prompting the typically very narrow band of voters who don’t have a firm opinion on the issue to vote to insert a ban into their state constitutions. In state after state, gay-rights supporters have struggled fruitlessly to combat the frightening messages.
To date, leaders of Minnesota’s vote-no campaign have been a little cagey when asked what might be different here. Supporters have been left hoping they have a hole card and simply aren’t willing to show it until fall, when the 11th-hour blitz of vote-yes commercials is expected.
Something, it seems, really might go differently here, both in terms of the message and the medium. Last week, Minnesotans United for All Families quietly rolled out its first two advertisements. The better of the two, a simple, elegant 30-second spot paid for by coalition member Project 515, drew high praise, as did the announcement that it will “air” online.
The spot features several couples and families, including two women, all juxtaposed before the same clean white field, describing how they met or how they knew the other was “the one.” The details vary a little, but the impression is all are essentially the same.
(The other ad features the same two women sitting in their living room talking about the meaning of marriage. It was cut from a longer video originally created for another purpose — Minnesotans United won’t say what, but early fundraising is probably a safe bet. It elicited a golf clap from several of MinnPost’s screeners.)
Targeting on the Internet
The 515 spot will appear over the next three months as part of a carefully constructed campaign that will use technology to put the ad before Minnesotans who are either likely supporters or who are very difficult for political campaigns to reach.
The ads will appear on news and other advertising supported websites, but can also be targeted to reach, say, rural voters who frequent traffic-construction update sites.
Once thought of as a sleepy backwater, the Internet is a great place for this type of campaign, said Chris Duffy, online video strategist with the public-affairs communications concern Goff Public. Because websites gather so much demographic information about visitors, advertisers can target incredibly specific niches.
TV ads, by contrast, are incredibly expensive. Advertisers are paying to blanket a geographic region in which they may be seeking to reach a few key types of voters.
More frustrating, given the one-two punch of the fragmentation caused by cable and the advent of the digital video recorder, fewer and fewer TV viewers actually watch ads anymore. Online, meanwhile, advertisers pay per “hit.”
“Online video is only going to become more prevalent,” said Duffy. “Any organization that seeks that out is doing the smart thing.”
Top channel for ads: YouTube
The premiere channel, in his opinion, is YouTube. It has 800 million unique visitors each month and a massive trough of information on viewers’ ages, where they live, past viewing habits, and so forth. Some of that viewing may be funny cat clips or a nephew’s first steps, but people are increasingly watching TV shows and movies online.
So what about the content? Think back, for a moment, to the 31 states where a particular set of messages has succeeded in reaching a by now well-defined slice of the electorate thought of as the “squishy middle.”
Typically 10-15 percent of voters, these undecideds may start campaign season with relatively neutral feelings on the topic — if they have thought about it at all. Many assume that allowing marriage between two men or two women will not have an impact on their own marriage.
It’s not hard to convince them to jettison this stance if gay marriage can be depicted as the cork in a bottle packed with societal ills. And so the vote-yes ads have warned that without a constitutional amendment a whole host of freedoms will be lost: Children will be indoctrinated into homosexuality in school and parents who object will be jailed, churches will be forced to conduct LGBT weddings, businesses will be sued and liberties ranging from freedom to worship to gun ownership will be threatened.
Exposure creates acceptance
Vote-no campaigns typically resort to one of two tactics: Fact-checking these assertions in emotionally flat, logical ads or appealing to voters’ sense of fair play. These fail in part because exposure is what creates acceptance. Barack Obama’s statement that his opinion shifted in part because first daughters Sasha and Malia have playmates with stable, healthy same-sex parents is a perfect example.
The ad makes what social scientists call an “argument from parallel case,” or analogy, “to advance the perception that same sex couples are ‘just like us,’” said Ed Schiappa, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Communications Studies Department and an expert on the issue. “This is also well grounded in theory, in that studies show that if you see yourself as similar to gay people you are less likely to be prejudiced against them.”
The online videos the vote-yes campaign has been circulating for months rely on a different strategy, he said. Narrated dispassionately by former anchor Kalley Yanta, they imitate TV news’ sets and segments.
“The ‘Minnesota Marriage Minute’ ads, by contrast, are all much longer than a minute and hence do not function as ‘ads’ as much as helping people already in favor of the amendment to deepen their understanding of the issues and, hence, their commitment to the amendment,” Schiappa said. “The ‘elaboration likelihood model of persuasion’ predicts that the more you think about the arguments for a particular issue, the more committed you become and the harder it is to change your mind.”
Kate Knutson is a professor of political science at Gustavus Adolphus College whose research has followed marriage-amendment campaigns. She noted that the videos the two sides have aired so far suggest the formula that has played out in other states—emotionally powerful anti-gay-marriage ads and tepid, logical vote-no ads—may get reversed here.
The new vote-no ad, “seems to be speaking directly to the idea that same-sex marriage destroys marriage,” she said. “They’re turning the argument on its head.”
Knutson found the spot emotionally compelling, too. “It’s a tug on the heartstrings,” she said. “It’s a reframing of that standard campaign message you’ve seen in other states.”
Does this mean Minnesotans will not be subject to a barrage of dramatic ads come September? Hardly. But it might mean that the shock-and-awe campaign, once under way, looks different from the first 31.