A Positive Ad Campaign, if Only for a Weekend

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Hate it or loathe it, negative advertising works. It is a campaign’s central weapon to define an opponent as unfit or unacceptable for the job.

And in this deeply polarized climate, with a president who seeks out the most caustic corners of modern politics, campaigns seem to be relying on negative advertising more than ever.

Yet in covering political advertising during the past two presidential campaigns, one of the chief complaints I’ve heard from swing-state voters is about how miserable their television-watching experience becomes in the run-up to a primary or a general election. “Wheel of Fortune” turns into a morbid, lawless dystopia during each commercial break. The escape of a lighthearted sitcom is broken up with dire warnings about the end of health care.

This weekend, voters got a glimpse of what it would look like if one presidential candidate ran only positive ads. With President Trump rushed to the hospital and sick with the coronavirus, Joe Biden’s campaign decided to take down all of its negative ads.

Though the Trump campaign kept up its negative advertising, the decision by the Biden campaign to go wholly positive offered a glimpse into how it is pitching Mr. Biden in a vacuum away from Mr. Trump.

The Biden campaign had 40 different ads on air across the country this weekend, spending $4.7 million on Saturday and Sunday alone, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. The Trump campaign had 14 ads airing over the weekend, and seven were negative attacks against Mr. Biden.

This is not to say that Mr. Biden’s ads didn’t try to draw contrasts with Mr. Trump.

The Biden campaign’s most-aired ad was directed at older Americans. “Our seniors that are being hit the hardest, they’re frightened,” Mr. Biden says in the ad. “I want them to know that their health and safety will be my responsibility.”

The ad implicitly compares Mr. Biden’s pledge to protect older adults, known to be the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, with Mr. Trump’s push to lift coronavirus restrictions around the country. Recent polls suggest this kind of messaging has been working, as Mr. Biden maintains a double-digit lead in multiple polls among voters 65 and older.

The second most-aired ad, and the one with the most money behind it, is a 60-second spot featuring a veteran of the Iraq war. He describes an armored military truck known as a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, and says, “This senator that I really had never heard of, named Joe Biden, was the one who was responsible for getting these MRAPs to Iraq.”

Mr. Biden did play a key role in getting the vehicles produced and deployed, and the Pentagon has said they saved many lives, though some analysts questioned whether they were worth the cost.

The ad hits all the key points for a testimonial: an unknown American with specific experience describing an understandable event that showcases the candidate’s work. And while the Biden campaign plays up his ties to veterans, it may also be hoping that voters recall Bob Woodward’s report that Mr. Trump has denigrated his generals in private.

One other ad that received heavy airtime this weekend was titled “The Biden Plan.” Rather than offer the broad brush strokes commonly found in political ads, this spot focused on some planks of Mr. Biden’s economic platform, including “nearly $7,000 for child care,” a $15,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, and Social Security benefits that “could increase by $1,300.”

Of course, any such plans would require approval in Congress. But the ad is an acknowledgment that many voters vote with their wallets.

Abutting those ads, however, the Trump campaign was still running attacks on Mr. Biden, including one spot with a woman sitting silently on a bed, holding up signs with messages criticizing the former vice president.

“Joe Biden worries me,” one sign says. “He’s weak.”

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Ad of the week: Harris takes over

With the vice-presidential debate coming up tomorrow night, the Biden campaign has begun airing ads that exclusively feature Senator Kamala Harris, almost as if Joe Biden’s running mate were at the top of the ticket.

The message: Ms. Harris is the first woman of color to appear on a major presidential ticket, and the ad seeks to drive home that fact.

In an empty auditorium, a young Black girl steps into the spotlight and approaches a microphone. Audio of a news broadcast announcing Ms. Harris’s selection by Mr. Biden starts to play, and the ad cuts to the girl at home watching the news. She sits up, looks at the camera and says, “Wow.”

The ad cuts back to her onstage as she leans into the microphone and announces, “Our time is now” while applause swells.

An overlay fills the screen, with the message “On November 3rd, VOTE for her” — referring to both Ms. Harris and the girl.

The takeaway: Mr. Biden’s chances rest in part on his support among Black voters. Putting Ms. Harris front and center in this ad and highlighting her barrier-breaking selection are part of the Democrats’ attempts to continue to build inroads. And the ad follows a message set by both Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris when she was selected: the importance for the next generation of young Black women to see someone who looks like them on the ticket for the White House.

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