Yes, I watched every campaign ad that's been broadcast in Iowa. I watched them more than once. I am still alive.
It started with a friend sending me this project he's been working on, the Political TV Ad Archive. The website makes it easy to find all the ads that have aired in early primary states, and it says when and where each one aired. Iowa is a small state, so I figured Iowans were subjected to maybe a few dozen different ads. This wouldn't be too hard, I thought.
But no. There were more than 100. Playing them all, just once through, took more than an hour.
I shouldn't complain, though, because I don't live in Iowa. And there, the 100 ads were aired more than 45,000 times. If you played them back to back, that would account for 41 days of commercials. Iowans who just want to watch some Beyoncé videos — is that too much to ask? — end up bombarded with Ben Carson ads. Note that my database only includes broadcast TV commercials, not YouTube or cable.
I live in New York, not Iowa. Still, I decided to watch every campaign ad that has run in Iowa to create a database about these commercials. I looked at how long they run and what sort of narrators they use. And I learned a few other things along the way.
(Clarification on the data: The Political TV Ad Archive built a program to detect when these ads aired. But it's not a precise process, because it's detecting audio signatures. So if news programs air ads or large portions of ads, it gets tagged as an ad. So this Bernie Sanders ad didn't actually air in Iowa, but news programs played large portions of this clip, which is why it was in the database. I've removed it from the chart.)
1) There were a lot of attack ads on the Republican side, especially from Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio
Jeb Bush has, for the past few months, been on the attack.
He and Ted Cruz are the two Republican candidates whose airtime has been spent largely on promoting themselves by attacking someone else. While Donald Trump likes to extoll his own virtues, Bush has been all about hits on other candidates, meant to paint them as unhinged and inexperienced. This ad, which was aired more than 1,500 times in Iowa, is a good example:
Not too many others took the bait, except Marco Rubio, who aired a handful of ads directly attacking Bush, like this one and this one. But while Bush set his gaze largely on Rubio, Rubio spent his time attacking Hillary Clinton, basically hinting that he's the best person to take on the likely Democratic nominee.
2) We may elect a woman president, but the omniscient voice in our heads is still a man
One thing I started noticing was the use of omniscient narrators — voices of people who never appear onscreen but make grand, sweeping generalizations with an authoritative voice, like this one. It was the most common type of political ad in Iowa, and I'd wager it's the most common kind of ad nationwide, alongside ads with no narrator at all, like this one, where it's just footage of a candidate speaking to large crowds.
In these ads for both Republicans and Democrats, the narrator is almost always male.
Even Hillary Clinton spent a large majority of her airtime on ads where a man is the omniscient narrator. This ad, which aired about 1,300 times, was the one she aired the most — and it has a friendly male voice narrating.
Female omniscient narrators are rare, but there are some striking examples from this cycle. This Clinton ad, which was the second-most aired, has a female omniscient narrator while talking about the wage gap between men and women. This Bernie Sanders ad, which was aired more than 1,300 times, has a female narrator talking about Sanders's record as a politician. And in this Ted Cruz ad — his most aired — a female narrator talks about terrorism and foreign policy, which almost never happens in campaign ads. Women narrators tend to stick to gender-specific subjects, while men are the default voice of authority in these ads.
3) Bernie Sanders sat in front of a camera and talked to the viewer, like a professor
If you've only watched debates, you might think of Sanders yelling behind the podium with flailing arms. But he aired a very specific type of ad thousands of times in Iowa. He sits in front of a camera and, like a professor, talks through economic inequalities in a strong but composed manner.
This ad, which aired about 1,800 times, is a perfect example. This ad is another one, where he starts by saying, "It's called a rigged economy, and this is how it works." And then you start seeing visual aids.
I think that's what made this ad so powerful. It's just a montage of everyday Iowans mixed in with footage of Sanders making campaign stops, with Simon and Garfunkel's "America" playing in the background. It's so not a Sanders ad, but it's the first one that tries to show how important his message is to Iowans. Yes, it's mostly white people in the ad, as many others have pointed out. But if you're an Iowan who has been seeing Sanders's professorial ads and nodding your head, I think this juxtaposition is quite powerful.
4) Clinton wants us to know her track record
Sanders spent most of his time pointing out what's wrong, and some time pointing out what he'll do. But Clinton spent a decent amount of time showing what she's done, like with this ad.
Many of her ads seem to say: Hey, you and I know about these problems in America. Here's what I've done to fix them, and here's what I'll continue to do. In this ad, she says, "The drug companies have been overcharging for long enough. It's time to fight back."
5) So what about Donald Trump?
You didn't think I'd leave out this guy, did you?
He aired three ads promoting himself in Iowa. They played a decent amount, but no one was inundated with Trump ads.
All three of them address whom we should let into this country — and the message in all three is basically: A vote for President Trump is a vote for the guy who would have the most stringent policies on immigration and border security. And that is what will make American great again, and greater than ever before.
What's even more telling, though, is the ads he didn't air. Remember, this is a non-establishment candidate relying on new caucus-goers to win Iowa, and he's only aired three ads. He's kept his foot off the gas in terms of ads because he's already saturated the market with free news coverage.
In fact, it seems Republicans in general have stayed off the gas on that front, while Democrats have spent a lot more money trying to get airtime.
6) So I've seen them all. What's my favorite ad?
This anti–Ted Cruz ad. There are a lot of bad campaign ads, but this one talks about how Ted Cruz is a flip-flopper — and does a decent job. But the dad joke punchline?
"Ted Cruz, consistently calculaTED."
Ha. Ha. Very funny, Dad.