WASHINGTON, D.C. — Voters across the country are being flooded this month with campaign ads, extolling the deep local roots of members of Congress.
There’s the Colorado commercial featuring Rep. Ed Permutter knocking on doors and chatting with constituents, and an ad of Democrat Brendan Mullen jogging home in his South Bend, Indiana district. And there’s Andy Barr’s “Devastating” ad, featuring what appear to be coal miners from his eastern Kentucky district accusing his opponent of crippling the coal industry.
But the conversations are staged. That's not his house. And that guy isn't a miner.
The candidates hail from different parties and different regions but one thing their ads, and many others, have in common is just how much stagecraft goes into the political quest for homegrown authenticity.
Take Permutter’s ad, “Ed is Walking the Extra Mile,” which features footage of the lawmaker climbing out his car, knocking on doors, chatting with folks on the street and generally doing the classic legwork of any good retail politics operation.
The video even includes the disclaimer “NOT AN ACTOR: This is actually Congressman Permutter.” Which is true.
But the seemingly spontaneous interactions in the ad are anything but, as the excerpts from the video shoot show, with Permutter and constituents doing multiple takes.
“They’re real people he talked to at their doors,” campaign spokeswoman Leslie Oliver said, explaining that the camera crew would ask for permission [to shoot] … they would set that up, but they were real doors he was knocking on and they weren’t pre-planned.”
Oliver said the campaign posted the outtakes on Youtube as a "repository" during production of the ad.
But in at least one case, shown at the 1:05 mark of the ad, the person the lawmaker seems to spontaneously meet on the street isn’t just a constituent – but a campaign volunteer, Oliver acknowledged.
“These outtakes reveal the truth about Rep. Perlmutter's record: He needs to play a part to cover up his failed job in Congress,” said Michelle Yi, the communications director for Permutter’s opponent Joe Coors.
Similarly, Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican who is challenging Rep. Ben Chandler, the campaign opted to cast a coal executive in the role of an actual coal miner.
In the ad River View Coal Vice President Heath Lovell dawns a t-shirt, bib overalls and a miners hat, and is seen accusing Chandler, President Barack Obama and the EPA of “putting the coal industry out of business, and it's just devastating.”
Although the ad does show Lovell’s name, it does not identify him as an executive with the company. The ad drew a scathing response from the United Mine Workers of America. "You have a pencil pusher acting like a coal miner," UMWA’s Kentucky Vice President Steve Earle told the Lexington Herald-Leader, which first reported Lovell’s identity.
And then there’s Mullen’s ad, “Running.”
The ad shows the Iraq war veteran turned small businessman running in front of various South Bend landmarks and abandoned factories as the candidate discusses his “South Bend values” in the voice over.
The ad ends with Mullen running up to a home with an American flag waving in front as he sits on the porch with wife, daughter and dog.
Mullen, who was stationed in DC and spent several years in the area after his time in the Army, has been criticized by his opponent Rep. Jackie Walorski who has accused the Democrat of being little more than interloper in the district.
The ad goes a long way towards re-establishing his roots in the area and was a clear effort by the campaign to undermine that line of attack.
But the bucolic house featured in the ad isn’t actually his, but the home of a family friend a few blocks away, according to his campaign.
None of the ads violate any rules — indeed, they all use imagery and conceits that are staples of the campaign advertising business. But they also demonstrate the lengths candidates will go to establish their bona fides.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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