Op-Ed

McManus: Campaign ads -- an American art form

I sat. I watched. Here are the highlights and lowlights so far.

Today's topic: the billions (yes, with a "b") that will be spent on advertising in this year's presidential and congressional campaigns, and what kind of messages that money is sending.

Like jazz, blues and musical comedy, the political ad is a uniquely American contribution to the arts, only less uplifting. Some turn into classics, like Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" ad or the 2008 will.i.am music video based on Barack Obama's "Yes we can" speech. Whatever your politics, you had to admire their artistry.

This year's campaign hasn't produced anything that good yet. But over a hot summer weekend I sat in an air-conditioned den and bravely watched dozens of commercials online so you wouldn't have to. Here are highlights and lowlights of the video battle so far:

Best and worst political ads from the presidential election season

Most effective Republican ad: "Wake Up," from Crossroads GPS, Karl Rove's independent fundraising group. In the ad, an actress playing a worried mother wakes up in the middle of the night, looks at her sleeping children and muses: "I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. But since then, things have gone from bad to much worse." Ouch!

Most effective Democratic ad: "Stage," from Priorities USA Action, an independent Democratic group backing Obama. In this one, a middle-aged worker in Indiana describes the day he was told to build a stage on the factory floor. The stage turned out to be for executives from Bain Capital, who stood on it to announce that they were closing the plant. "It was like building my own coffin," the worker says. Double ouch!

Most misleading Republican ad: "Wasteful Spending," from Americans for Prosperity, an independent conservative organization. The ad charges that the Obama administration's loans to alternative energy firms were all "wasted" and that much of the money was used to create jobs overseas. Fact-checking groups have taken this commercial apart as a hodgepodge of errors, exaggerations and misleading leaps in logic. For example: The ad says a loan went to a solar company that built a plant in Mexico. True, but misleading. The company didn't use government money to build that plant; it used its U.S. loan to build a facility in California.

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

Most misleading Democratic ad: "Mosaic," from the Obama campaign. The ad accuses Romney of raising more than 1,000 taxes and fees as governor of Massachusetts, including one "on milk." Romney did raise permit fees for milk dealers and dairies but by such modest amounts that milk-loving toddlers and their parents didn't pay measurably higher prices as a result.

Most controversial ad (for now): "Come and Go," also from the Obama campaign. The ad charges that Romney, when he was at Bain Capital, "shipped jobs to China and Mexico." The Romney campaign says that isn't true. A Bain-owned company did move jobs from California to Mexico in 2000, but Romney was no longer running Bain at the time — although he still owned the firm.

Worst Medicare ad: Too many to count, on both sides. But here are two of the worst:

For the Democrats, "No," from Patriot Majority PAC, an independent group. The ad summarizes the House Republicans' budget plan as "No to Medicare," quite an exaggeration, and uses the magic of selective editing to quote the Wall Street Journal as saying the GOP "would essentially end Medicare." The Journal said the plan would end Medicare "as a program that directly pays [medical] bills" — a different matter.

For the Republicans, Crossroads GPS has aired commercials in states with hot Senate races, including Missouri and North Dakota, that accuse Democratic incumbents of "slashing Medicare" by voting for Obama's healthcare law. Obama's law doesn't cut current Medicare spending, but it would slow the program's growth in the future — as would most of the plans Republicans have proposed.

Silliest ad: Again, too many to list, but "America the Beautiful" from the Agenda Project, a liberal group, deserves a mention. The ad shows an unnamed Republican dumping an old lady in a wheelchair off a cliff, a clumsy metaphor for proposed changes in Medicare.

Finally, a special award for misuse of "heroism" goes to "Thank You, Sen. McConnell," from the conservative American Future Fund. "Heroes fought and died for our rights," the ad says over stirring music. "It's what makes us Americans." Who's the hero? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for opposing a proposed constitutional amendment to allow limits on campaign spending — and potentially put the American Future Fund out of business.

You can find links to these ads at latimes.com/campaign2012. But watching them is only the first step. You owe it to yourself and your fellow voters to see what the fact-checkers say too. My favorite nonpartisan monitoring group is FactCheck.org, but there are others. Don't take your own side's claims as gospel; they're cutting corners too.

Think those ads are bad? This campaign still has almost four months to go. If history is any guide, you ain't seen nothing yet. And when you see something you think is misleading or just plain wrong, please drop me a note.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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