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Easy On The Ears: GOP Ads Adapt To Reach Women Voters

It's only April, but it looks and sounds like October. More than $80 million has been spent on political advertising in only about a dozen Senate battleground states.

About half that amount is targeted at women.

Many ads aimed at women take the most obvious approach: Republicans putting their female candidates front and center; Democrats attacking Republicans for waging a war on women.

But there's more to it than that, says Republican ad-maker Ashley O'Connor.

"Women process information differently than men," O'Connor says. "So much of political advertising focuses on conflict, and facts and figures, and I think that we're already starting to see, when reaching women voters, there's just new techniques need to be used, and a different tone, and more storytelling."

O'Connor singles out an ad aired by Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon seeking the Republican nomination for Senate in Oregon. In the ad, a woman tells the story of Webby operating on her daughter.

"Dr. Wehby was going to open her back and reconstruct my daughter's entire lower spine," the woman says. "She just hugged me and kissed my forehead, and she said, 'It's going to be OK, sweetheart. I've got her, and I am going to see you in a couple of hours.' "

"This is a 60-second ad and it's not particularly issue-driven," O'Connor says of the spot. "It sort of goes to this point that when talking to women, I don't think you necessarily have to be delivering factual information to move them. I think connecting with their heart and really trying to build emotion is more effective."

That may sound a little sexist, but appealing to emotions is what all effective advertising does. And the fact that Republicans are trying to do it is the biggest new development in political ads aimed at women.

Aiming For Tough, But Not Harsh

In a typical Republican superPAC ad from 2012, for instance, a man intones a list of Democrats' alleged failings over a soundtrack of ominous music: "Family incomes down, 40 percent living paycheck to paycheck, and Obamacare's new tax on middle-class families."

This year, the GOP has ditched the baritone narrator, the scary music and the facts and figures. Instead, the party is doing what Democrats have been doing for many years: using softer voices and more personal stories.

A Republican superPAC ad running this year features a woman who narrates in a conversational tone: "People don't like political ads. I don't like them either. But health care isn't about politics. It's about people. It's not about a website that doesn't work ... It's about people, and millions of people have lost their health insurance. ... Obamacare doesn't work."

Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president with Kantar Media, praises the ad.

"It's a very clean ad," Wilner says. "The tone of the ad, her tone, is very sympathetic and very easy on the ears. It's a new kind of attack ad, and it is not a harsh ad in any way, but the message itself is very tough."

Endorsed By Wives, Moms And Daughters

There are other trends this year that both parties hope will appeal to women. Family members are everywhere in ads, especially moms and daughters.

In a Florida special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Trey Radel, candidate Curt Clawson's mother appears in an ad to endorse her son. In the same race, Paige Kreegel's wife criticizes "nasty" campaign ads.

In Iowa, the children of Monica Vernon, also running for Congress, promise their mom "will never stop working for the middle class."

Not only is the content of the ads changing, but so are the places in which they appear. Jim Margolis, a veteran Democratic ad-maker, says it's no longer enough to air an ad on daytime TV, or even the nightly news, to reach women.

"We are using data and analytics to try to determine what are the actual programs that women are watching, Margolis says. "And to try to determine, as well, what are those issues, for that particular group, that are going to be the most resonant, that they're going to find the most compelling."

Wherever women are digitally, Margolis says, political ads will find them. A woman who is a Democratic target voter in a Senate battleground state might see campaign ads all day online.

"When you log on in the morning to check the weather, there's a pretty good chance that somebody is going to be talking to you right there," he says.

Your browsing history can say a lot about you, Margolis says, including your gender, interests and issues that matter to you.

The Shoot-'Em-Up Approach

These new ways of targeting women voters, with content tailored to women's concerns, are becoming common. But there's always an exception to the rule. Take the much-imitated ad in which a male politician attacks — literally — the IRS code or a piece of legislation passed by President Obama.

This week, that macho format was adopted by Republican Joni Ernst, a pistol-packing mama running for Senate in Iowa. Ernst already earned attention for an ad about her experience castrating hogs. In the new ad, Ernst rides a Harley to a gun range, and fires off six shots at a target.

"Joni Ernst will take aim at wasteful spending," the narrator says. "And once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni's gonna unload."

It seems that even the shoot-'em-up TV ad has achieved gender equality, for better or worse.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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