- Ad Title: Desperation
- Ad Sponsor: Texans for Greg Abbott (PAC)
- Issue of Focus: Davis’ Campaign
- Type of Advertisement: Negative
- Broadcast Locations: Web Ad
- Length: 30 seconds
- Date Aired: Published September 22, 2014 via YouTube
- Web Address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52TPMHX-Wqs
Transcript of “Desperation”
(Transcribed by Jaclyn Bruner)
Male Voice 1 (:01): “We have the potential for a very ugly fall race.”
Male Voice 2 (:05): “Yeah, we’re not seeing much support for Wendy Davis…”
Female Voice 1 (:07): “…does a desperate attack…”
Male Voice 3 (:09): “The Davis campaign did leave grey areas in the information.”
Male Voice 4 (:13): “Also misleading.”
Male Voice 5 (:14): “Not true.”
Male Voice 6 (:16): “Going negative now, for Davis, could be compared to [pause] throwing a Hail Mary pass in a football game…”
Female Voice 2 (:23): “At some point, she’s gonna have to introduce herself to voters.”
Analysis of “Desperation”
Jaclyn Bruner, University of Maryland
Texas voters face a choice between two starkly different candidates in the 2014 gubernatorial election. State Senator Wendy Davis (D) experienced national and international exposure after her filibuster of a restrictive abortion bill in June of 2013, where she became symbolic of a voice committed to the rights of Texas women. Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) is a familiar conservative face to many Texans, yet the Dallas Morning News reports that polling early in the summer showed that even many Texas Republicans do not know him well. Both candidates have deployed ads in an attempt to control campaign messaging. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the Texas race has been heated for months, in a place where the Democratic Party hasn’t won a statewide race in nearly 20 years. Characterized as one of the “most bitterly fought and closely watched races of 2014,” the candidate ads feature pointed attacks and negative portrayals of one another. The Texas market has been saturated with them: with more than 10,000 ads airing across the state in just a two-week period.
The first, long-awaited, Texas gubernatorial debate occurred on September 19, 2014. Following the debate, the Political Action Committee (PAC) “Texans for Greg Abbott” released a web ad entitled “Desperation.” This ad attempted to draw attention to the recent parade of desperate actions taken by the Davis campaign. The composition of the five visual action shots in “Desperation” and their respective use of montage and music present a consistent argument: Davis’ campaign is a disaster.
The Greg Abbott campaign uses a disaster metaphor in “Desperation” to discredit the candidacy of Wendy Davis. Through a series of five distinct action scenes, the ad characterizes Davis’ campaign (and by extension the candidate herself) as tantamount to disaster. The ad’s composition juxtaposes man-made disasters, close frames of Davis’s face, and frantic music to expose Davis’ campaign as nothing more than a “wreck.” As such, the disaster metaphor frames the entire ad, guiding the audience to the conclusion that Davis will lose on Election Day because she turned to negative advertising instead of introducing herself to voters.
Set to a movement from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Summer, “Desperation” combines five distinct visual scenes, each building on the previous one to articulate the demise of Davis’ campaign. Understanding such a message, however, requires what Christian Metz refers to as the grammar of film, wherein the arrangement of images is understood to be a constructed narrative, even down to the sequence of shots. The message of this attack ad can best be realized when focus is placed on the visuals, which suggest that Davis’ campaign is doomed through identification and metaphorical imagery. When the verbal text and voiceover are layered onto this assertion, they complete the argument’s premise – blame Davis’ negativity for her ultimate demise.
The first scene is the longest of the five, occupying 10 seconds of the 30 second ad, and orienting the audience to the purpose and tone of “Desperation.” It opens with footage of Davis speaking at a podium, but quickly zooms out, relegating her to a faded image on an old television screen. As the camera angle continues to widen and the frame reveals more of the shot, the audience comes to view Davis through the worn out glass of a vintage television that has been left in the middle of the road. Although the fate of the television remains unknown, it is clear it has been tossed away. This shot of Davis, ostensibly speaking to no one, implies that her ideas are as discarded and unwanted as the old TV set. According to film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, audiences can understand scenes as that which comprises the longer cohesive ideas of a film.
Although the second scene is the briefest, it is perhaps the most artistically nuanced. As the voiceover brings attention to the “grey areas of information” left in Davis’ previous campaign ads, color has been removed from the footage as she speaks. This leaves Davis in a literal grey area. “Desperation” consequently characterizes Davis’ choice to attack her opponent as physically and visibly depriving her campaign of the vibrancy and flourish necessary to achieve victory. More telling, however, is the shift in music from minor, angry marching chords to the sounds of agitated violins that reinforce the negative aura surrounding Davis’ campaign. The short shot is nevertheless complex, asking audiences to identify the gaps in the Davis campaign before accepting its shortcomings as detrimental.
Following the depiction of Davis as “grey” and without substance, “Desperation” uses the editing method of montage to superimpose shadows over her face. There are two ways of conceptualizing montage in film theory, either as a building-block technique or as Eisenstein advances, an editing move that collides two shots to “explode into a [single] concept.” The shots within the montage sequence, paired with strategic music add to the concept of “Desperation.” With Davis on the left and shadows on the right, the camera angle frames her face in an extreme close up shot, setting the viewer in closer proximity than would ever be possible. As she speaks, the words of the male voiceover align with the movement of Davis’ lips. The audience hears the word “misleading,” while a manipulating choice clip of her speaking seems to suggest she is uttering the same deceptive messages. Meanwhile, the rhythmic chugging of the orchestra grows as the scene shifts slightly revealing a new clip of Davis behind the title “Not True” (referencing a fact-checking conclusion by an Austin news station). Her gaze casts downward, suggesting that Davis is shamed and not in a position to directly address the audience. Branded by the negativity, the shadows subsume Davis’ face as they begin to fly across the left of the screen more rapidly; meanwhile the music adjusts to a lighter, but more frenetic pace. The transition to the next scene contributes to the overall tension of the ad by raising the stakes with disaster footage.
With each visual shot, the impending doom becomes more palpable, culminating in the depiction of man-made disasters—train wrecks and sinking ships—to metaphorically describe the Davis campaign. In the fourth major visual scene, the passing shadows give way to stock footage of locomotives, barreling down the tracks towards one another and an imminent head-on collision. The viewer is forced to identify with the train on the left because the camera angle adopts the subject position of a conductor, hanging out the window, watching the inevitable happen. However, at the last possible second, an editing cut saves the audience from their fate, allowing them to instead watch the crash from a safe distance.
By placing the audience back into a safe zone, “Desperation” absolves the potential-voter from any stake in Davis’ campaign. She is left along to suffer the consequences because only she produced negative ads. Another cut in this action shot shows the viewer another train-wreck, this time from a closer distance while the voiceover likens her campaign choices to a desperate, last second Hail Mary pass. By emphasizing the disaster metaphor, Abbott’s damning ad articulates the message: “Wendy Davis’ campaign is a train wreck.” And, by again situating the viewer a safe distance from the dangerous explosion, the ad functions to remind viewers that they were this close – and lived to tell the tale.
The fifth and final visual scene, then, takes the disaster metaphor and extends it even further. Three sequential cuts of sinking ships operate in two ways: (1) to reassure the audience they have indeed avoided the disaster, and (2) to assert that Davis’ turn to desperate attack ads has sunk her bid for governor. Because the camera angle again places the viewer at a safe distance, allowing the audience to watch the sinking ship, the would-be voters can extract themselves from Davis’ doom. As the audience watches subsequent ships meet their fate, Davis’ face is superimposed to the right, intersecting the image of the sinking ship. This montage also serves to force the concept that Davis and the sinking ship share the same fate. Accented by ominous and dissonant chords, the scene ends with a shot of Davis shaking her head and lowering her eyes. Thus, “Desperation” leaves Davis in a position of defeat, reinforcing the concept that her campaign’s negativity has ended in disaster.
The five visual action shots and their respective compositions of montage and strategic music present a consistent argument: Davis’ campaign is a disaster. This argument is re-enforced by the use of captions on the screen and voiceovers that condemn her actions. It also implies that because Texas voters can see the disaster approaching, they can prevent the impending doom by rejecting Davis’ bid for governor. Thus, Abbott’s campaign ad “Desperation” bases the metaphor of disaster on her negative tone, suggesting that attack ads and a lack of substance has ultimately cost her the election.
 Chuck Lindell and Mike Ward, “Dewhurst Declares Abortion Bill Dead, Blames ‘Unruly Mob,’” Austin-American Statesmen, June 26, 2013, (accessed October 6, 2014) http://www.statesman.com/news/news/davis-starts-filibuster-to-stop-abortion-bill/nYTqs/; Jennifer Quinn, “11-hour Filibuster Blocks Abortion Bill: Texas Senator Fights the ‘Most Anti-woman, Anti-family legislation… Ever Seen,” June 27, 2013, A4.
 Christy Hoppe, “Greg Abbott Brings Staunch Conservatism, Toughness to Race for Governor, but Lacks Perry Bravado,” Dallas Morning News, July, 13, 2013, http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/state-politics/20130713-greg-abbott-brings-staunch-conservatism-toughness-to-race-for-governor-but-lacks-perry-bravado.ece.
 Nathan Koppell, “Davis Struggles to Gain Traction in Texas Governor’s Race,” Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2014, A4.
 “Davis, Abbott to Face Off for Texas Governor; Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis Clinch Primary Wins,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2014; Christy Hoppe, “Greg Abbott Running Twice as Many Ads as Wendy Davis,” Dallas Morning News, September 30, 2014, (accessed October 6, 2014) http://trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com/category/governors-race-2014/.
 “Texas Gubernatorial Debate,” CSPAN.com, September 19, 2014, (accessed October 6, 2014) http://www.c-span.org/video/?321547-1/texas-governors-debate. See also “Desperation,” (accessed October 6, 2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52TPMHX-Wqs.
 The majority of the music edited into the ad is from Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Op. 8, Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, RV315, Summer III: “Presto.”
 Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).
 Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (New York: Harcourt, 1949).
 Eisenstein, Film Form.
 Kevin Schwalter, “FACT CHECK: Wendy Davis Ad Attacks Greg Abbott,” KXAN News, August 27, 2014, http://kxan.com/2014/08/26/fact-check-new-wendy-davis-ad-attacks-greg-abbott/.