Jobs, Trade Dominated Presidential Advertising in 2012

Matt Vasilogambros
November 13, 2012


For many, the American factory might be one of the lasting images of the 2012 presidential election, a familiar backdrop both to countless campaign events and scores of television ads.

With the U.S. economy still recovering from a devastating recession, campaign ads surrounding manufacturing jobs, China and outsourcing dominated the 2012 election cycle, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Alliance for American Manufacturing.

With the exception of images of the candidates, the most common image in advertising this cycle was the factory, according to the analysis. The mention of jobs nearly tripled over the last presidential election, while the mention of trade nearly doubled.

Elizabeth Wilner, the vice president of Kantar Media, said the visual of a factory was used heavily during the campaign, an easy tool that holds a great deal of emotional appeal when describing trade or jobs.

“Americans see our nation as one that makes thing and builds things,” she said in a conference call on Tuesday. “The economic policy challenges we face are complicated and they’re difficult to illustrate, especially in ads.”

Republicans outspent and out-aired Democrats on jobs, according to the analysis. While Republican ads focused on poor unemployment numbers and China as a currency manipulator, Democratic ads focused on businesses shipping jobs overseas and hurting the lives of average Americans.

In fact, Republican mentions of jobs in advertising tended to increase around the time monthly unemployment numbers were released, while Democrats tended to decrease their mentions of jobs during that time, according to the analysis.

Wilner said she saw Democratic ads in the cycle as more effective. “The Democrats messaging on jobs was more effective in general,” she said. “They were sharper and more impactful.”

For example, Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that supported President Obama, ran dozens of ads that hit Mitt Romney on his business record. One of the most effective of those ads was called “Stage.” Based in Marion, Ind., a man describes how he and his factory coworkers were told to build a stage, which days later was used by company executives to let the workers know they had been laid off.

In total, the Obama campaign spent $57 million in TV advertising that addressed Romney’s time at Bain Capital, according to the analysis. The outsourcing theme remained prevalent throughout many of the Obama campaign’s ads during the cycle, as did the auto bailout.

On the issue of trade, which was one of Romney’s focuses, about $68 million was spent on advertising. The Republican nominee criticized the Obama administration heavily on this issue, calling for new trade in South America and a tougher stance on China. Both campaigns spent around the same amount of money on the issue.

While the presidential race was fought over a dozen battleground states, a whole litany of manufacturing- and trade-focused ads concentrated on just a few states in the nation’s industrial core: Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The Ohio market was one of the most saturated this cycle, as Cleveland ranked second nationwide with ad spending on jobs—about $37 million on 33,877 spots. Similarly, when it came to Bain mentions—$4.8 million on 5,676 commercials—and trade—$5.8 million on 5,138 spots—it was second nationwide. Cleveland led the country on ads mentioning China, with $4.6 million spent on 4,722 ads, according to the analysis.