Minnesota for Marriage, the group pushing to insert a ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution, on Monday released its first two TV ads. A far cry from the breathless, ominous ads that have aired in other states to date, the 30-second spots depict the central issue as the rights of voters, not those of same-sex couples.
In fact, neither ad so much as mentions the words “gay” or “lesbian.” Instead they are peppered with mentions of “voters,” “voting” and “the people.”
Also missing from the ads are the standard warnings of dire consequences: 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.
Instead, the low-key spots frame what’s at stake as making sure it’s voters who control whether gay marriage is legal, not courts or legislatures.
“They’re trying to make arguments that are not going to be seen as bigotry or anti-gay,” said Kate Knutson, a professor of political science at Gustavus Adolphus College whose research has followed marriage amendment campaigns. “I think it’s very effective.
Use of to state’s civic culture
“They may play on Minnesota’s civic culture in a way that resonates more than in other states,” Knutson added.
The first opens to grainy, home-movie-style frames of heterosexual couples enjoying their weddings. “Marriage as the union of a man and a woman has served society well for thousands of years,” explains the voiceover. “Marriage is more than a commitment of two loving people. It was made by God for the creation and care of the next generation.”
Several shots of mothers and newborns are followed by a montage of families of different races and then by a flag-bedecked polling place. “Marriage is an issue that should be decided by the people,” the narration continues. “Voting yes secures traditional marriage in the constitution and ensures that only voters can determine the definition of marriage in the future.”
The other, in which former KSTP-TV anchor Kalley Yanta sits on a couch, her fingers curled around a coffee mug, frames the issue as making sure that the definition of marriage is decided “by people, not judges or politicians.”
‘Voters will have lost their say’
As she taps an iPad, a screen showing two men and a legal document pops up, followed by an image of the state Senate chamber. “Right now, there’s a court case in Hennepin County to redefine marriage. And some powerful legislators want to do the same thing,” she continues. “If they succeed, voters will have lost their say. Everyone has a right to love who they choose but nobody has a right to redefine marriage.”
The tone of Minnesota for Marriage’s initial ads is much softer than some three dozen online videos it has circulated over the last year. Indeed, one of the most recent frames the goal of keeping voters in control a little differently.
“The amendment does not end the conversation about marriage, it ensures that voters are always in charge of the conversation,” it says. “Gay activists would have to get the permission of voters in order to redefine marriage in the future.”
Heather LaMarre is a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert on political psychology. The ads are very sophisticated, she said, and suggest that the vote-yes campaign is employing psychographic research to reach pockets of swing voters by using messages that speak to their attitudes.
“The first ad is pretty straightforward, using a traditional religious frame,” she said. “It clearly appeals to social conservatives.”
Framed as ‘voters versus elites’
The second, which talks only about resting the decision with voters and not about marriage per se, is more narrowly targeted. “The second ad re-frames the debate as a ‘voters’ versus ‘elites’ issue,” LaMarre said. “By focusing on how voters should decide the definition of marriage, as opposed to legislators or judges, the ad appeals to people who don’t like government intrusion.
“This seems to be an attempt to gain libertarian conservatives’ support,” she added. “The first ad appeals to the social conservatives while the second ad appeals to libertarian conservatives who might not oppose gay marriage, but will oppose judges’ and elected officials’ involvement.”
Both ads strike the same note as the Minnesota for Marriage radio ads that preceded the Legislature’s 2011 vote to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, Knutson noted. The continuity in terms of message is likely effective, if disingenuous, she said.
No initiative process in Minnesota
While 24 states have set up initiative processes by which citizens can initiate legislation via ballot campaigns, in Minnesota, legislation is made by elected lawmakers. “We’ve set up a representative system of government,” Knutson explained.
It is also true, she said, that in most places where same-sex marriage has been legalized it has been by the courts, although there have been legislative actions, too. Positioning marriage equality as rightfully belonging to voters is a smart strategy.
Like the vote-no coalition’s early ads, the spots likely steer around messages that have played poorly with undecided voters — typically just 10-15 percent of the electorate — in the 31 states where same-sex marriage issues have appeared on ballots.
In state after state, gay-rights supporters have struggled fruitlessly to combat the frightening messages in the 11th-hour ad blitzes, produced by the same California political communications strategist credited with reversing public sentiment regarding Prop 8 in 2008.
When undecided voters are asked to think of same-sex marriage, they often say they imagine its legalization will have no impact on their own marriages. Frank Schubert, who is managing Minnesota for Marriage’s campaign as well as campaigns in the other three states facing marriage votes, has made sure to attach consequences to same-sex unions.
Typically, same-sex marriage proponents’ logic-laden refutations of the ads have been emotionally flat or have left some undecideds feeling accused of bigotry. Ads showing gay- and lesbian-headed families have nudged up the feeling quotient but still proven ineffective.
Armed with research showing that exposure to gays and lesbians is the most effective way of changing someone’s opinions about the issue, Minnesotans United for All Families has followed a strategy based on personal conversations. The first ads produced by the group and another vote-no effort have depicted opposite-sex couples who changed their minds.
The heaviest advertising is slated to begin in mid-October. Whether the messages put out by either side will grow more strident in coming weeks remains to be seen. The vote-yes campaign has said it will broadcast ads intended to communicate the consequences of same-sex marriage.