Tom Wolf for Governor, “Get Real”

Ad Transcript:

Tom Wolf: Have you seen Tom Corbett’s ads attacking me? Get real. It’s Tom Corbett who’s been sticking it to the middle class on taxes. Corbett cut a billion dollars from education. Now, almost 80% of school districts plan to raise property taxes. Meanwhile, we’re the only state that doesn’t charge oil and gas companies an extraction tax. But Corbett raised your gas taxes through the roof. I’m Tom Wolf; I’ll be a governor that stands up for the middle class for a change.

Analysis of “Get Real”

Rebecca Alt, University of Maryland

Introduction and Ad Context

 Like all communication, political advertisements do not exist in a vacuum; they are part of a larger debate unfolding on voters’ television screens and Internet monitors. Campaigns in fact often rebut the opposition through political ads. This analysis demonstrates how Wolf’s “Get Real” ad is a direct response to incumbent Governor Tom Corbett’s attack ads, specifically his ads, “No, No, No” and “More and Less.”[1] In both of these ads, Corbett portrays Democratic nominee Tom Wolf as a liar and manipulative politician-robot.[2] In “Get Real,” Wolf responds with a more positive ad that reinforces his character and relies on his front-runner status in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. This analysis examines Wolf’s 30-second spot as a unique combination of the three main types of political ads: defense, attack, and acclaim.

Analysis of Ad Content           

“Get Real” performs all three functions of political advertisements (defense, attack, and acclaim) because it addresses and turns the tables on accusations made in Tom Corbett’s attack ads; the ad also reinforces his own character. William L. Benoit, P.M. Pier, and Joseph R. Blaney explain these three functions of political advertising: (1) “to enhance their own credentials” (self-praise or acclaims), (2) “to downgrade their opponent’s credentials” (negative or attacks), and (3) “to respond to those attacks made against them” (defense);[3] each of these functions may occur on issue (policy) and/or image (character of candidates) grounds.[4] Further, Benoit, Pier, and Blaney assert that “incumbents use more positive than negative ads; challengers use a more balanced approach.”[5] Candidates usually employ a combination of these strategies in the whole of their campaign rhetoric, but Wolf’s ad accomplishes all three in merely 30 seconds.

As the main character and narrator in “Get Real,” Tom Wolf counters the claims made in “More and Less” where he uses the defense tactic. Corbett argues: “Tom Wolf will raise the state income tax on many middle-class Pennsylvania families.” In response, Wolf says condescendingly, “Get real. It’s Tom Corbett who’s been sticking it to the middle class on taxes.”[6] He then backs up this claim with evidence: “Corbett cut a billion dollars from education.” Defense relies on shifting blame or simple denial, which is illustrated in this opening statement.[7] Wolf’s defense is simple and to the point, denying Corbett’s accusations and shifting blame to him. Wolf’s use of a condescending tone (the phrase “Get Real” alone evokes condescension) to refute Corbett’s ads reinforces the dominant position he maintains in the race. Wolf makes his assertions matter-of-factly; some candidates on the defensive invoke a much more anxious tone than evident in Wolf’s ad, reinforcing his sense of confidence.

Wolf’s “Get Real” also performs the attack function. Michael Pfau, Roxanne Parrott, and Bridget Lindquist note, “once seen as the strategy best suited to challengers who trail incumbents, [attack] has emerged as the strategy of choice among both challengers and incumbents.”[8] Lau and Royner also point out that usually in a two-candidate race, the front-runner typically uses more positive ads and his/her opponent more frequently goes negative and attacks.[9] Tom Wolf bucks that trend in “Get Real,” since he maintains the lead. Wolf employs the attack strategy in the following statements: “Corbett cut a billion dollars from education. Now, almost 80% of school districts plan to raise property taxes,” and “But Corbett raised your gas taxes through the roof.”

Finally, “Get Real” bolsters Wolf’s character (acclaim function) symbolically and verbally. His physical presence/direct address in the ad symbolizes confidence, responsibility, and dominance. This rhetorical strategy is known as enactment. Wolf is living proof of the character claims this ad makes.[10] Wolf takes ownership for this advertisement and for his arguments by addressing the audience directly, which also bolsters his credibility as a candidate. Wolf concludes by reminding the audience of his promise: “I’m Tom Wolf; I’ll be a governor that stands up for the middle class for a change.” This statement simultaneously acclaims and attacks (“for a change” directly alludes to Tom Corbett’s track record).

Wolf’s “Get Real” is a political spot that reflects all three functions of political advertisements. Because campaign advertisements are usually either dominantly positive (acclaim) or negative (attack)—and rarely employ defense[11]—Wolf’s choice to construct an ad that confidently defends, attacks, and acclaims reflects his dominant position in the race.[12] Combining these three strategies also marks this ad’s uniqueness.

At the end of Tom Corbett’s “No, No, No,” the voiceover poses the rhetorical question: “Tom Wolf – what is he hiding?” Clearly, Tom Wolf’s physical presence and confident rebuttals in “Get Real” attempts to demonstrate that he is not hiding anything. This ad exhibits his status as front-runner in the race to the Pennsylvania Governor’s mansion.

Notes

 [1] See the “More and Less” ad by Tom Corbett for Governor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uaeUNvlk7g.

[2] Jill Harkins, “PA-Gov: Wolf Releases Response Attack Ad (Video),” PoliticsPA (August 14, 2014): Retrieved: http://www.politicspa.com/pa-gov-wolf-releases-response-attack-ad-video/59788/.

[3] William L. Benoit, P.M. Pier, and Joseph R. Blaney, “A Functional Approach to Televised Political Spots: Acclaiming, Attacking, Defending,” Communication Quarterly 45, No. 1 (Winter 1997): 4.

[4] Benoit, Pier, and Blaney, “A Functional Approach to Televised Political Spots,” 4.

[5] Benoit, Pier, and Blaney, “A Functional Approach to Televised Political Spots,” 3.

[6] For example, in the same election, Tom Corbett’s “No, No, No” ad depicts Wolf as a robot. There are countless other examples of hyperbolic attack ads. Strategies of defense citation: Benoit, Pier, and Blaney, “A Functional Approach to Televised Political Spots,” 8.

[7] Benoit, Pier, and Blaney, “A Functional Approach to Televised Political Spots,” 13.

[8] Michael Pfau, Roxanne Parrott, and Bridget Lindquist, “An Expectancy Theory Explanation of the Effectiveness of Political Attack Television Spots: A Case Study,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 20, No. 3 (August 1992): 237.

[9] Richard R. Lau and Ivy Brown Rovner, “Negative Campaigning,” Annual Review of Political Science 12 (2009): 292, “However, as the gap between two candidates narrows, the leading candidate’s use of negative advertising will increase in order to maintain his or her front-runner status.”

[10] Kathleen Campbell describes the rhetorical strategy of enactment in “Enactment as a Rhetorical Strategy in the Year of Living Dangerously,” Central States Speech Journal 39 (1988): 258-268.

[11] Benoit, Pier, and Blaney, “A Functional Approach to Televised Political Spots,”10-13; and William L. Benoit, “The Functional Approach to Presidential Television Spots: Acclaiming, Attacking, Defending, 1952-2000,” Communication Studies 52, No. 2 (Summer 2001): 113.

[12] At one point Tom Wolf had a 20-point lead in the polls. Although it is now narrowing, Wolf still remains on top. See James P. O’Toole, “Pa. Governor’s Race May Pivot on Turnout by Party Faithful,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), October 26, 2014.