Editor’s note: Eric Deggans is NPR’s television critic.
The spooky music, the scary headlines, the commanding voice telling tales of waste and corruption: It’s election season in Florida again. Where I live, in the Tampa Bay area, a heavily populated region in a swing state, politicians and their supporters spend a lot of money on TV ads. The result is that this TV critic, like so many other Floridians, has been inundated with campaign messages.
One ad criticizing GOP candidate Donald Trump (and paid for by the conservative American Future Fund) stars a retiree named Bob. “I was duped by the Donald,” Bob says. “I paid $35,000 to Trump University, and all I got was a picture of myself with a cutout of Donald Trump.”
This is actually one of two ads I’ve seen regularly on local TV featuring people who claim that they were bilked by Trump University. But this one also mimics many other ads targeting the large number of retirees and senior citizens who live in Florida: Bob is gray-haired and a little tired-looking, and he alleges the GOP front-runner ran a business that cheated him. It’s the worst nightmare for many Floridians on fixed incomes; a message designed to earn their sympathy and identification.
But when Trump decided to pay for an ad in Florida, he didn’t boost himself; instead, he criticized an opponent, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “Corrupt Marco Rubio has spent years defrauding the people of Florida,” the commercial begins. It goes on to criticize Rubio for things like missing votes in the Senate, against a montage of grainy, black and white photos as blood-red graphics fill the screen.
When attacks like these air in a commercial paid for by a political action committee, sometimes the viewer knows little about those who made it, or their agenda. At least when you hear a candidate approve the message at the end of an ad, as Trump does here, you know who the criticism is coming from.
Then, of course, there are ads that aim to educate. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has run negative ads with gloomy music and ominous narration, but in one commercial airing in Florida, Sanders lays out his economic message in a direct appeal to the voter. “Is the economy rigged?” he asks. “Well, the 15 richest Americans acquired more wealth in two years than the bottom 100 million people combined.”
That’s a big difference from an ad rival Hillary Clinton aired in nearby Orlando. “She says their names,” the ad begins, “Trayvon Martin … Dontre Hamilton … Sandra Bland.” Clinton is known for her appeal to voters of color, so it makes sense to air this ad in Orlando — it’s close to Sanford, Fla., where Martin, an unarmed, black 17-year-old, was shot dead four years ago. And it doesn’t hurt to have one of the nation’s best-known African-American actors, Morgan Freeman, voice it for you.
Especially over the past few weeks, ads with critical, negative messages have seemed to really outnumber more positive political ads on local TV here. As a critic, I worry mostly about the cumulative effect. These messages can become a sort of white noise of negativity, leaving me and my fellow Floridians feeling gloomy and discouraged by the whole political process.
It’s a good thing my Netflix account is paid up.