2016 presidential advertising focused on character attacks

Advertisements Screenshots/Hillary for America and Donald J. Trump for President

The general election ads from the 2016 presidential campaign represented a referendum on each candidate’s character. And in this ad race, there were no winners.

Both the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns featured the takeaway message that their opponent is not fit to lead. Even though Trump won the election, he will face significant obstacles in reestablishing the credibility he needs to lead a very divided electorate. Fear and anger were the key emotions of TV ads from both campaigns and two Super PACS. Trump must now find a way to mitigate national anxieties in the wake of a polarizing election.

Ad research

Our research team with the Political Advertising Research Center at the University of Maryland studied the political advertisements produced during the general election – from July through the end of October. Our team studied ads produced by the Clinton campaign and the Trump campaign. We also studied ads from two Super PACs: one Clinton-leaning (Priorities USA Action) and the other pro-Trump (Rebuilding America Now).

In order to gain a comprehensive picture of the ads, our team examined the ad spending and ad strategies of the general election and produced A Report on Presidential Advertising and the 2016 General Election.

Our team coded the content of each ad using four tenets: 1) whether content was positive, negative or comparative, 2) whether ads focused on issues, character or a combination of character and issue, 3) the emotional appeals used based on six primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, joy, love and surprise, and 4) the subject matter. Together, these tenets helped reveal the broader strategy of each campaign – a strategy that focused more on the weaknesses of the opponent rather than the strengths of the candidate.

We also studied where the money was spent during the ad cycle of the general election.

Ad spending

The Clinton campaign vastly outspent the Trump campaign in terms of TV ad buys. As of Oct. 25, 2016, Clinton’s campaign had spent between US$142 and $172 million on TV and radio during the general election. In addition to Hillary for America’s spending, Super PACs and other outside support groups spent $103 million.

Although the Trump campaign increased its ad spending in the final weeks of the campaign, it didn’t top the Clinton budget in terms of overall spending. As of Nov. 2, 2016, Clinton had spent $211.4 million in TV ads, while Trump had spent only $74 million.

The Clinton campaign spent three times more money on TV and radio advertising than the Trump campaign, yet Clinton’s final total was still far less than we have seen in the last two elections. Clinton’s spending seems almost modest when compared to Obama’s $404 million budget in 2012.

One reason for the general drop in spending is that the 2016 candidates focused more energy on electronic ads and social media than television spot ads. According to Borrell Associates, a market research firm, digital spending for 2016 was estimated at $1.6 billion - a 576 percent increase since 2012.

Despite an increase in ad spending on social media, which caters to younger voters, TV remains the most dominant platform for political ads with a 70 percent share of ad revenue. The target audience for political ads is not clear-cut. TV ads often target older voters, yet most TV ads are also uploaded to YouTube and other social networks that are predominantly used by younger audiences.

While Clinton launched her first general election ad in July 2016, Trump’s first general election ad came out in the third week of August. Both campaigns heavily targeted battleground states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Clinton campaign also focused on Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska and Texas while Trump invested much of his resources in Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, California and Colorado.

Clinton’s ad strategies

Clinton’s campaign organization, Hillary for America, produced 38 televised ads between July 7 and Oct. 25. Over half of Clinton’s ads overtly attacked Trump, frequently using the words and images of Trump as ammunition.

An additional 24 percent of the ads represented an implicit attack on Trump, juxtaposing him as the negative counterpart to Clinton’s positive character. Ads such as “Myself,”Families First” and “General Allen” serve as part of a series of comparative attack ads questioning Trump’s fitness.

In another ad, titled “America’s Bully,” Clinton tells a young girl, “We shouldn’t let anybody bully his way into the presidency.” The ads addressed Trump’s temperament and intelligence, contrasting him with Clinton’s moral character, government experience and steady nature. In attacking Trump, the ads primarily appealed to emotions of fear, sadness and anger.

Trump’s ad strategy

Trump relied on character attacks as the subject matter for approximately 35 percent of the TV ads he released. Of the 17 ads released by his campaign from August through late October, six were categorized as character attacks. In “Immigration,” “Economy,” “Dangerous” and “Change,” the Trump campaign contrasted the character of the candidates. But by the end of October, Trump released three positive character ads in a row that featured more “campaign biographies” of the candidate. In these commercials, Trump showboated his success and promised to bring the same leadership of success to the presidency. These ads were aimed at both overcoming his negative image among American voters and demonstrating his ability to govern successfully.

Overall, Trump’s campaign strategy focused on building a more positive image of himself while denigrating Clinton’s character. For instance, in his ad “Deplorable,” the narrator queried: “You know what’s deplorable?” The answer: “Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard-working people like you.” The incendiary language that Clinton used (“deplorable”) and Trump applied to Clinton (“demonizing”) exacerbated the anger and fear animating the campaign ads of 2016.

Super PAC ad strategy

The Super PACs echoed the strategies of the candidates’ official campaigns. In fact, for most of the ads produced by Priorities USA Action, the message was that Trump is “dangerous” and “unfit” to be the president. Many of the ads featured the mothers of children who have been hurt, killed or emotionally affected by the types of “hate,” “bullying” or “disrespect” that Trump exhibited during this campaign. The audience was invited to empathize with the grieving mothers and to consider the futures of their own children.

Trump-leaning ads from Rebuilding America Now predominately traded on voter anger and contempt for Clinton. Nine of the 11 “negative” ads attacked Clinton’s character in some way, frequently using Bill Clinton’s indiscretions as an index of her own immorality.

The 2016 takeaway

While character attacks have always been a feature of campaign advertising, during the 2016 election, these formed the mainstay strategy for both the campaigns.

Between 1952 and 2008, 31 percent of the general election ads were character-based. In 2016, character ads made up 76 percent of the television campaign ads from the general election. The Clinton and Trump campaigns, as well as the Super PACs, attacked the opposition through appeals to fear and anger over positive emotions like joy and love.

Our analysis suggests these negative appeals helped deepen the anxiety and cynicism that dominated the campaign climate in ways unmatched in recent memory. The consequence is an electorate openly expressing fear of the other side. As the Pew Center reports, “[m]ore than half of Democrats (55 percent) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49 percent of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”

If the campaign of 2008 was known as one of “hope” and “change,” the campaign of 2016 may well go down in history as one of “fear” and “anger.”

Additional UMD PARC Research Team Members: Alyson Farzad-Phillips, Nora Murphy, Claudia Serrano Rico, Kyle Stephan and Gareth Williams.