Tom Corbett for Governor, “No No No”

Voiceover: Tom Wolf spent millions bragging about himself in TV ads. But when Wolf was asked to make public information about a questionable loan Wolf received, Wolf said no. When Wolf was called on to release the findings of an audit disclosing how women were treated in Wolf’s company, Wolf refused. And when tax issues led to Wolf being asked to release his company’s tax returns, Wolf said no, and, no. Tom Wolf – what’s he hiding?

Analysis of “No No No”

Rebecca Alt, University of Maryland

Introduction and Ad Context 

Pennsylvania voters elected Republican Tom Corbett Governor of Pennsylvania in 2010. Democrat Tom Wolf is challenging Corbett in 2014, and recent polls show the incumbent’s race looking “epically bad.”[1] Over the years, Pennsylvania citizens have become discontented with Corbett; questions of his leadership and policies are regularly addressed in the Corbett campaign spots. The particular Corbett ad takes the focus off of Corbett and instead puts all of the attention on attacking his opponent. Corbett’s ad attacks Tom Wolf by visually transforming him into a non-human robotic politician whose only working switch is the “off” switch. The “No, No, No” ad uses visual imagery and verbal cues to invite viewers to say “no, no, no” to Wolf in November.[2]

Analysis of Ad Content

Corbett’s “No No No” ad opens by implying that Wolf is a spending a lot of money to make himself look good in his TV ads—an argument that both attacks Wolf’s character and bolsters his own. The character argument is expressed verbally when the voiceover says, “Tom Wolf spent millions bragging about himself in TV ads.” Not only does this statement attack Wolf’s spending, but it also assumes that the Corbett campaign has not spent millions (which bolsters his character)—even though the campaign data suggests otherwise.[3]

“No No No” also attacks Wolf’s character visually. The spot begins with an image of four bodies with TVs for heads that are featured against the backdrop of the Harrisburg capitol rotunda. Wolf’s face appears in each of the four television screens. These facial images symbolize the claims that Tom Wolf is full of himself, that he is over-zealous with his advertising campaign, and that he is a political robot. Wolf’s face on each TV screen exudes a look of arrogance; the ads also make Wolf look rather silly as each body waves their arms in glee. In the first four seconds of the ad alone, Tom Wolf is depicted as a confident TV-head and a robotic politician eager to spend money recklessly—an ad hominem appeal punctuated through visual imagery.

The ad then assumes a more serious and ominous tone when questioning the legality of Wolf’s financial dealings. Wolf’s expression shifts from positive to negative as the voiceover says, “But when Wolf was asked to make public information about a questionable loan Wolf received, Wolf said ‘no.’” The ad then attributes this quote to Tom Wolf: “I’ll be happy to share what anybody wants to see.” As this statement is aired, the camera zooms in on the first two TV heads. Their facial expressions are noticeably more pained and uncomfortable—implying that we “caught” Wolf in a lie. This double-mediation (seeing Wolf’s face inside a TV screen within our own TV or computer screen) functions rhetorically—not only bringing attention to his many TV ads, but also trapping him in the screen and in his own words. At this moment, the first Wolf hits the power button precisely when the words “Wolf said no” are uttered. The “no, no, no” theme is reinforced by the act of the TV-head pressing the off switch and the voiceover saying the word “no.”

The “No, No, No” ad thus challenges Wolf’s trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is an important factor for voters and an integral feature of a candidate’s character.[4] In the realm of advertising, Thorson and Christ assert that commercials focused on character are more memorable than issue ads.[5]  Challenges to Wolf’s trustworthiness are made through the captions and verbal cues. The voiceover makes the point that “Wolf said no” when “asked to make public information about a questionable loan Wolf received.” The following text appears on the screen and accompanies the voiceover: “Wolf pressed for details on $4.5 million campaign loan.” The ad further challenges Wolf’s character when the voiceover claims that he “refused” “to release the findings of an audit disclosing how women were treated in Wolf’s company.” The same “no, no, no” response accompanied the request that Wolf “release his company’s tax returns.” As the voiceover makes these statements, the remaining Wolf TV-heads switch themselves to “off,” reinforcing the ad’s claims about catching Wolf in a lie.

All of the negative verbal (“no, no, no) and visual (off-switch) appeals combined to represent Wolf as a robotic politician. The conclusion results from Wolf’s obsession with seeing himself on TV and his lack of trustworthiness: Because Wolf says “no, no, no” to the important questions, the ad suggests that Pennsylvania voters should say “no, no no” to Wolf in November. Although all negative advertisements would seem to naturally lead to this same conclusion, Corbett’s ad makes this conclusion most explicit: Wolf is an untrustworthy, self-obsessed, TV-head-robot that only knows the “off” switch. Such logic encourages Pennsylvania voters to similarly turn off their support for Wolf’s candidacy.

[1] See Aaron Blake, “Tom Corbett’s poll numbers are epically bad,” Washington Post. Retrieved: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/08/28/tom-corbetts-poll-numbers-are-epically-bad/ ; also Jeffrey Robinowitz, “PA-Gov: Corbett Called “Dead Man Walking” by National Journal,” PoliticsPA Retrieved: http://www.politicspa.com/pa-gov-corbett-called-dead-man-walking-by-national-journal/59364/.

[2] For a theoretical explanation of the power of visuals in political advertising, see Cindy J. Price, “Using Visual Theories to Analyze Advertising,: A case of South Dakota’s Abortion Commercials,”  Visual Communication Quarterly 18 (2011): 18-30.

[3] Data retrieved from the Pennsylvania Department of State: https://www.campaignfinanceonline.state.pa.us/pages/CFAnnualTotals.aspx?Filer=2009216

[4] Trevor Parry-Giles, “Resisting a Treacherous Piety: Issues, Images, and Public Policy Deliberation in Presidential Campaigns,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 13, no. 1 (2010): 37-63.

[5] Thorson, E., and W.G. Christ. “Effects of issue-image strategies, attack and support appeals, music, and visual content in.” Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 35, no. 4 (Fall91 1991): 465. See also Robert Rudd, “Issues as Image in Political Campaign Commercials,” The Western Journal of Speech Communication, 50 (Winter 1986), 102-118. For more on issue vs. image appeals, see Brian L. Roddy and Gina M. Garramore, “Appeals and Strategies of Negative Political Advertising,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 32, no. 4 (Fall 1998): 415-427.