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Bain, Bain, Go Away: An Annotated Collection of Obama’s Summer Anti-Romney Ads

July 18, 2012

Over the last few weeks, the Obama campaign and pro-Obama Super PACs have released a spate of ads criticizing Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital, a private investment firm that Romney helped found in 1984, and ran until 1999, when he departed to run the Winter Olympics. What’s really interesting about what I’m going to call “that whole Bain business” has been—and if you know me I think you can see this one coming—the rhetoric that has surrounded it (or constituted it, if you prefer).

I submit for your analysis several anti-Romney attack ads that may offer a preview of Obama’s second campaign, a campaign that is looking like it’s going to be heavy on the Karl Rove and light on the “Yes We Can.” Since there isn’t much else happening on the political front this summer, let’s take a quick peek at the ads and assume, for the fun of it, that they are the face and the shape of what is to come.

Ad #1: Stage

I first saw “Stage,” one of a series of anti-Romney attack ads that have drawn attention in the last few weeks, while vacationing with my family in North Carolina. I watched it on a tiny cell-phone screen at the behest of my wonkish brother, who said that it was one of the more striking attack ads he’d ever seen. The ad is almost shockingly minimal in its construction. Notice that neither Romney nor Obama speak in the ad and Romney makes only a single appearance. The ad is entirely devoted to the story of Ampad worker Mike Earnest (who has, quite possibly, the most politically convenient last name this side of Emilio Hardworkingman, who isn’t even real).

Ad #2: Makes You Wonder

This ad is so much more conventional in its approach to Romney’s economic policy. It uses his refusal to release any tax records other than his 2011 return to intimate that Romney must have something to hide. However, John McCain and others from McCain’s campaign have stated that they had the chance to review Romney’s tax returns in 2008, and found nothing disqualifying in them.

A brief digression: I’ve often wondered about that “ridged” look (starts at 0:25) that attack ads sometimes superimpose on file footage of the attackee. Is it meant to obscure the poor quality of the footage? Or does it make the footage look “seedier” somehow?

Ad # 3: What Does “Retroactively Retired” Mean?

This ad takes an approach I haven’t seen in an attack ad before. It asks (or purports to ask) people on the street (i.e. everyday people) to decipher the phrase “retroactive retirement” which has been used to justify the fact that Romney was listed as CEO and sole shareholder of Bain Capital years after he is supposed to have left. Although I am sure the people featured in the ad are real, I doubt that the ad tells us much about how the average person would respond to the question, “what does ‘retroactively retired’ mean?” I can tell you this because, when I hosted a “man on the street” segment for a local TV show during my undergrad years, I recall 1-2 hours of raw footage translating into about a three-minute segment after editing was done. So, yeah, it’s cute, but there’s a whole lot missing and what’s left doesn’t really tell us much about how the average person would make sense of the phrase. I do think it’s fascinating to see people trying to make sense of the highly formal, indirect and frankly nonsensical language that circulates in the business world.

Ad #4: Mitt Romney: Chairman, CEO, and Sole Shareholder—But Not Responsible?

Here again we see everyday people making sense of Romney’s words. The general idea here is to contrast the speech of everyday people with business-speak, which is filled with fine distinctions and definitional clarifications that seem far removed from how regular folks—some of whom appear to be literally standing on main street—talk. In fairness to Mr. Romney, most spoken discourse looks funky when it’s written down verbatim. One ends up with run-on sentences, fragments and other speech elements that one doesn’t typically see in polished, written prose.

Ad #5: Mitt Romney: Asking for Apologies While Launching Attacks

OK, here’s my last one from the Obama campaign. There are many more available on YouTube, however, and more show up almost every day. The above ad aggregates attacks on Obama by Romney in an attempt to undercut Romney’s demands for an apology over “that whole Bain business.” And hey, there’s that “ridged” video look again. One thing I wonder about in this video: the attacks made by Romney are clearly meant to seem somehow illegitimate or below the belt. But what ties them together? Is it readily apparent what norm Romney’s statements are violating?

Grand Conclusions:

I argued at the beginning of this post that I see Obama’s campaign as inspired by the tactics of Karl Rove. In particular, I see Rove’s influence in the Obama team’s decision to attack Romney’s apparent strength: his business acumen. Turning your opponent’s strength into a weakness is a signature element of Rove’s oeuvre. You’ll no doubt recall that this method was very effective against John Kerry, whose military service became a liability after the Bush campaign (and its surrogates) added a wonderful word to our shared vernacular: swiftboating.

One might well argue that Obama’s approach is even more sophisticated (and, frankly, devious) because it not only attempts to turn Romney’s success in the private sector into a weakness, but also creates a strong counter-frame through which voters can re-interpret Romney’s I’m-a-businessman narrative. The ads seem to say, “Oh, he’s a businessman, alright, but he’s the businessman who fired your dad, who left you saying ‘they took my jerb!’” The Obama team clearly wants to be running against Mitt “Corporations are People My Friend” Romney. And, if you take a look at the Romney team’s response so far, you won’t see a direct rebuttal to this image. At least, not yet.

If you want to know more:

  • There has been a tug-of-war between campaigns, media outlets and about whether or not Romney can be criticized for the actions of Bain after his 1999 leave of absence, which was retroactively turned into a retirement (you can read’s thorough coverage here and here and an example of the no-Romney-didn’t-leave-in-1999 argument here).
  • Note that the “Stage” ad was released by a Super PAC, not Obama’s actual campaign. I’m not sure how much difference that really makes in the grand scheme of things, but it bears pointing out.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda Flower permalink
    July 19, 2012 9:49 am

    Nice post Doug,
    I am trying to remember the Karl Rove mantra–stay on topic (or was it target?); defend your base; in your face. I like the structure of this–small clips and cumulative interpretive comments. But my question is, given the power of the Stage, and even the Makes you Wonder (about hiding something), how effective are the ads that just show a reader’s confusion–without a clear interpretation of what that means. It seems oddly to reflect more on the readers and assumes we will work hard to draw inferences. I wonder if we will.
    Thanks for the Into to Ads, 101.

  2. Matt Zebrowski permalink*
    July 21, 2012 3:47 pm

    I agree with Linda that these ads are interesting in that they push us into inferences as opposed to stating explicit critiques. Especially “Makes You Wonder.” It seems to be making the classic “if you don’t have something bad to hide, then you won’t mind us looking around” argument that I’m more than a little sad to see from the Obama campaign, especially after the whole birther nonsense, which was basically the same thing. Perhaps their power lies in the way that what we could imagine is worse than any possible reality?

    Calling it “that whole Bain business” misses the marvelous opportunity of calling it “swiftbaining.” Come on, Doug…

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