Critical Essay #1: The Relationship between Issue Ownership and Campaign Media

Issue ownership and campaign media are two topics that go hand in hand. In the modern age of vicious political attack ads one simply cannot exist without the other. In fact, it could even be argued that without the reinforcement of campaign media, issue ownership would not exist in the way it does today. Why is this? Because issue ownership boils down to marketing and branding, and how to communicate a message behind a brand. We are a society saturated in multimedia. According to a 2012 Nielson statistics report featured in an NY Daily News Article, the average American over the age of 2 watches 34 hours of TV a week (Hinckley). We constantly have messages thrown at us over the airwaves with the aim of trying to get consumers to associate certain words, feelings, and images with material products so that we then purchase them. In the political sphere, the same now goes for people and parties. Political media firms hired by campaigns and independent PACs are trying to get voters to buy their candidate and their party; they achieve this by putting millions of dollars into building a brand around issue messaging.

Let’s look at it like this. Corporations are constantly in the business of building brands through TV advertising. In 2012, 36 companies in the United States spent over $1 Billion on advertising (Austin). All of this was done in order to effectively promote their brand. The result? When you think of Walmart you think of the word affordable, when you think of Subway you think of the words healthy and fresh, when you think of Mercedes you think of the words luxury and class. This is because successful marketing campaigns through commercials and image advertising have made you associate these words with their products. The political arena is not much different. When you think of the Conservative platform what issues come to mind? National security, defense, free market principles, etc. When you think of the Democratic platform what issues come to mind? Healthcare, women’s rights, the environment, social welfare, education, etc (Iyengar 166). This is because both parties champion these issues via the free media through the news and pundit programs, and the paid media, through advertising (Iyengar 150).

Paid media and advertising in particular have seen exponential growth since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court Ruling, which allowed for increased spending on campaign advertising. In the 2012 Presidential Election, $404 million was spent on ads supporting President Barack Obama by the Obama Campaign and independent PACs, and $492 Million was spent on ads supporting Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by the Romney Campaign and independent PACs (Washington Post). In the three most influential “Swing States” of that election spending was extremely high. Between the two camps, $173 million was spent on advertising in Florida, $151 million in Virginia, and $150 million in Ohio (Washington Post). So how does this money manifest itself into advertising based on issue ownership?

Let’s examine two political ads from each of the two campaigns in the 2012 Election that played to the candidate’s strong issues. Then we’ll look at polling done that gathered public opinion on who better handles certain issues and highlight any correlations.

In this commercial titled “Secretary of Business” the narrator attacks Obama on his lack of business experience, and instead touts Romney’s record as a businessman and a leader who understands the economy and will create jobs. The ad also attacks Obama by negatively associating him with issues often attributed to Democrats, such as bureaucracy and big government, claiming that such things have been the cause of unemployment under the Obama Administration. Throughout the campaign Romney branded himself as a businessman who promoted free market principles as a way to strengthen the economy, which was in line with typical Conservative issue ownership. At the same time, the Romney Campaign also demonized Obama through negative issue ownership by painting him as a big government Liberal, playing off preexisting notions of Democrats and portraying them in a bad light in order to negatively brand the President.

In this commercial titled “Facts” the narrator touts the benefits of the President’s Affordable Care Act as a means to strengthen Medicare. The narrator then proceeds to attack Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential Candidate, Paul Ryan, and his proposed budget plan citing studies and projections that state the Ryan Plan, if enacted, would undermine Medicare and result in increased healthcare costs for Senior Citizens. Popular entitlement programs passed by Democrats, such as Medicare and Social Security, have historically been issues owned by Democrats. This commercial plays into that history as a means to curry favor with Senior Citizen voters, and at the same time attack Romney/Ryan and the Republican’s weakness on the issue.

So how did this issue messaging translate in the polls? It appears quite successfully. This Gallup Poll conducted November 1-4, 2012 where likely voters were asked which candidate would better handle certain issues, pitted Obama in the lead on Medicare and Healthcare, and Romney in the lead on the economy and federal spending (Gallup).

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The correlation is clear that issue ownership and campaign media are married topics. What is even clearer is that political campaigns have spent vast amounts of money on political attack ads to promote their candidates and attack their opponents based on certain issues. Just like corporations do with products for consumers, campaigns craft brands around candidates to help them better appeal to voters. They spend millions to associate certain issues and ideas with candidates and parties, essentially “owning these issues”. As more money pours into elections in the post-Citizens United era the branding and issue messaging of candidates and parties is bound to become more complex, more creative, and more hostile as time goes on. Whether this new culture of unlimited spending on political attack ads is good or not is up for debate, what is certain is however is that this new culture of campaign media and issue messages is a reality that is here to stay.

Works Cited

Austin, Christina. “THE BILLIONAIRES’ CLUB: Only 36 Companies Have $1,000 Million-Plus Ad Budgets.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 11 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

Hinckley, David. “Americans Spend 34 Hours a Week Watching TV, according to Nielsen Numbers .” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.

Iyengar, Shanto. Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

“Mad Money: TV Ads in the 2012 Presidential Campaign.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.

“Romney 49%, Obama 48% in Gallup’s Final Election Survey.” Romney 49%, Obama 48% in Gallup’s Final Election Survey. Ed. Gallup Editors. Gallup, 5 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

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