Politics

Just How Average Are the Average Voters in Campaign Ads?

There are no rules about disclosing who appears in campaign commercials

Air Force veteran Andrew Marschall, second from right, appears in an ad for North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer’s bid for Senate. What the ad doesn’t mention is that Marschall is a Republican state legislator. (Screenshot Kevin Cramer for Senate/YouTube)

Turn on any TV across America over the next two weeks, and there’s likely to be people talking into the camera about how wonderful or how awful a particular candidate is.

The face-to-camera testimonial from so-called regular people is a staple of campaign advertising.

But who are these people?

It’s sometimes hard to know. 

Ads identify them with various levels of detail — a first or full name, a hometown, maybe a military rank. Others don’t identify them at all. In that case, there’s little way to know whether they’re “real people” or paid actors. 

A September ad for Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s campaign for Senate featured individuals who said they voted for her Democratic opponent, Phil Bredesen, when he ran for governor but couldn’t vote for him this year. None of the individuals speaking to camera were identified on screen. Bredesen’s campaign challenged Blackburn’s team to release the names. They did not.

“The voters featured in these ads are real, unpaid Tennessee voters,” Blackburn campaign spokeswoman Abbi Sigler told The Tennessean at the time. 

“There are no real rules on disclosing the real people; it’s more of a professional code,” GOP media consultant Ben Burger said. 

“The more you can give a name and city, the more you have credibility,” added Bob Kish, another Republican ad maker. 

For the most part, campaigns shy away from using actors for these sorts of testimonials.

“I would never put an actor on there to say, ‘I had cancer,’” Kish said.

Dramatizations of past events or extras in the background are sometimes a different story. Campaigns have often turned to staff or volunteers for those roles. Earlier this year, Democrat Jennifer Wexton, who’s running in Virginia’s 10th District, was criticized for dressing up extras, including her own field director, as police officers in an ad. Florida GOP Rep. Brian Mast had to pull an ad from the airwaves earlier this year after TCPalm revealed that the retired New York City firefighter featured in the spot was convicted of domestic battery and was a Miami-based actor who didn’t live in the district. The Mast campaign said it didn’t pay him. 

Flashback: Staffer Plays Cop in Campaign Ad

Real people

Ad makers from both sides of the aisle agree that “real people” are the gold standard for testimonials. But how do you find them?

“In most campaigns, you start fishing around, talk to [the] manager — eliminate family members — but look for volunteers for the campaign, people you met on trail,” Kish said.

Campaigns often put together different constituency groups — partly so they can call on those people for things like ads. 

But plenty of ads identify the person on screen but conceal that they’re tied to the campaign in a paid capacity or are current or former candidates or party officials. 

There are no rules against doing that, but if it comes out that the person in a candidate’s spot is the local party chairwoman, for example, it’s easier for their opponents to discredit the ad.

“You try to stay away from party activists. It’s better to find an everyday person,” Kish added.

Omitted titles 

In October, the Bredesen campaign released an ad responding to Blackburn’s attacks about his handling of records detailing sexual harassment allegations while he was governor.

Marsha Blackburn’s attack ad is just a lie,” says the first woman who appears on screen. The only thing that identifies her is text on screen that says, “Worked with Phil Bredesen.” There’s no name. 

When Bredesen’s campaign released the ad, it also disclosed in a press release and on its website the names and titles of each person who provides a testimonial in the spot. The first woman, Gina Lodge, is identified as a former commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Human Services. What the campaign didn’t mention in that October release is that she’s also its treasurer. The campaign did announce Lodge was serving as treasurer in January, but that’s not something voters would necessarily know or remember when watching the ad. 

An ad for North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer’s Senate bid identifies veterans sitting around a table by their first and last names, rank and branch of military service. The ad features Andrew Marschall, a retired tech sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. It doesn’t mention that he’s also a Republican state legislator.  

Cramer’s opponent, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, featured Charles Linderman, a soybean farmer from Carrington, in an October ad about tariffs. “Mr. Cramer, that trade war is costing my family a lot of money, and you don’t seem to care,” Linderman says in the spot, standing in a field. The ad does not identify himf as a former Democratic state legislator.

Both parties do this all the time. And to an extent, it’s to be expected that the volunteers or the people a campaign knows well enough to ask to be in an ad are going to be more politically engaged than your average vote.

The question is whether people with ties to the campaign or political experience of their own undermine the credibility they bring to the ad. 

Linderman doesn’t think so.

He said the Heitkamp campaign knew about him because of his involvement in Democratic politics and asked him to appear in the spot. He was happy to do it because he feels strongly about the trade war. He estimated that the tariffs are costing him $30,000 to $40,000 this year. 

“I’m a legitimate farmer,” he said Wednesday, noting that he started growing soybeans in 1982. 

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