Matt Foreman

TV ads aren't the answer in Maine

Filed By Matt Foreman | October 25, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: attack ads, child care, Maine, marriage equality, response ads, same-sex marriage, scaring parents

As the campaign in Maine enters the home stretch, our skeevy opponents have unleashed yet another ad claiming that unless marriage equality is overturned, same-sex marriage will be "pushed" on elementary school children.

Our side has responded with calm, rebutting the attacks with facts, statements from authoritative figures, and appeals to higher values. Sadly, that approach has been condemned by well-respected figures in our community, including Andrew Sullivan, Mike Tidmus, the Box Turtle Bulletin and the Bay Area Reporter.

The common thread in the complaints is the belief that we lost Prop 8 last year in large part because our side didn't respond to similar kids/school-based attacks with better, more aggressive ads countering the lies of our opponents. The commentators appear to believe there is some quick way to get out front on the kids/schools issue and our Maine campaign is again failing to do that.

There are several problems with this point of view.

First off, the Maine ads aren't for gay people and our allies - they're for people who can be persuaded to vote for equality - the "movables." One thing that definitely does not work with this essential group of voters is arguments that are lecturing, polarizing or angry. All that does is make movables view the issue as a battle between extremists, precisely what these voters abhor.

Next, the kid/schools attack ads are effective because they go right to the parental-protection gut of parents. They carry a double-whammy: first, that young people can be taught (read "recruited") to be gay or lesbian, and second, that kids will come home asking questions about sex and sexuality. Whether we like it or not, most parents deep down would really rather their children not turn out to be gay and certainly don't want to be talking about sex, period, let alone gay sex with their kids. This is deep, non-rational stuff.

So, what's our side supposed to do in the heat of a campaign? Put up an ad that says, "This will never happen! The other side is a bunch of sleazy, lying, utterly hypocritical dirtbags!" Not only does this approach turn off the movables, it simply doesn't respond to or calm the fears raised by the ads from the other side. In fact, in the brief window of a campaign there's absolutely no way to educate voters about the nature of sexual orientation or put parents at ease about talking about sex with their children. The only way through these attacks is to respond with calm and to simultaneous appeal to higher, better and still visceral values.

Finally, all of the focus on television ads, both in Maine and California, misses a huge point, namely, that advertising rarely moves more than a tiny fraction of people to change their minds on any candidate, subject or product that people feel they know well. And if there's one issue that everyone thinks they know about, it's marriage.

Yet, somehow, people expect one or two ads to be the magic bullets that make broad swaths of people on either side of the issue jump up and say, "Damn it! I've been wrong about marriage and gay people all along!" Please.

That's precisely why, when it comes to marriage, ads cannot do it - they must be matched with face-to-face conversations with voters. That ultimately was our downfall in California - our side just didn't have the capacity to do this because the scale was too large and our infrastructure too small. In Maine, the scale is more manageable: 275,000 votes to win as compared to over 5.5 million in California.

That is exactly what No on 1 campaign is doing, under the leadership of Jesse Connolly, one of only a tiny handful of people that have ever defeated an anti-gay statewide ballot initiative. They are mounting the most aggressive and at-scale field effort our side has ever put together. They are focused on turning our side out to vote, not satisfying armchair quarterbacks.

We have a real shot to win in Maine. Let's let our folks do their jobs.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

I agree with you that a strong field effort plus a powerful GOTV is much more effective to gain a victory than simply relying on ads, something we in California unfortunately know from experience.

However, I have to disagree with you on an approach to the ads. I admit that an angry response is not productive, but constantly being on the defense is far from convincing movables in our direction.

The opposition is amazing in getting the movables out to vote in their favor by doing what you describe - stoking their inner fears about indoctrinating children and raising the subject of sex (of all kinds).

But us taking the higher road and imploring people to uphold the value of equality doesn't stir the movables off their couch to face bad weather and long lines to vote in our favor.

What can we say to our target, straight audience (more specifically for Maine, white male audience) to motivate them to vote for us? Because like we've argued over and over again (and it's true), gays and lesbians marrying won't affect them at all. So why should they bother to vote on the subject either way? Or even harder for us to do, why should they feel the need to get up and vote in our favor?

Studies show that people don't like being duped. They don't like being lied to and manipulated. I claimed that using smart wording with imagery, we should've discounted the opposition's argument about schools before they even aired (we were on the air first way before Yes on 1). We also should have said flatly that they will lie. This would have cast a pall over all the opposition's ads going forward because we framed the debate.

I was told that was a bad idea because giving credence to the other sides arguments was not smart. But again, it's about implicit not explicit wording. Plus, we KNEW what they were going to say before they said it, so we not bet them to the punch? We had the advantage. Once we said they would lie about schools at the beginning, then we charge forward with our message, imploring them to ignore the outsiders.

Now they're calling us liars flat out. So now we can't say the same because it will sound like a response and being defensive. (We dropped the ball by not using Mutty's confession of misleading voters immediately.)

I commend NO on 1. They've done amazing work and we will all learn from their skill and strategy. They're fast on their feet and now their own state like the back of their hand. Their work excites me and I support them wholeheartedly.

But we've played defense when we had the advantage. And now we're neck-n-neck in the polls. It's a toss up. And it shouldn't be.

Bravo, Matt. It's frustrating that almost all the online commentary has been focused on the ads, while it's the ground war (rather than the airwaves war) that really counts.

I also agree that the best response to their scare-tactic ads is a calm, stick-to-the-facts approach. That said, I'm wondering if preemptive ads have ever been tried to take some of the sting out of their scare-tactic ads, something like "You're going to see a lot of scary ads about what our kids are taught in school... don't be fooled.. yada, yada."

Sadly, their scary ads about kids seem to move the polling against us. Countering them with ads is almost impossible, so I'm glad Maine has got it's ground game together.

You want to know what you should do? Take a page from the "" campaign against youth smoking. Tell "movables" that they're being tricked - that the election is being bought by out-of-staters funneling in money. Tell them that Yes on 1 is trying to insult their intelligence. Tell them not to be duped by people who aren't even fellow Mainers.

The reason the ads worked is because if kids are told by their parents not to smoke, they'll do it out of rebellion. But if kids are told they are being played for fools and pawns, well, smoking becomes less attractive as a tactic for rebellion.

Take a page from their book and let them know they are being tricked by people who aren't even their neighbors. You don't need to tell them it's NOM or the Catholic Church doing so - just say that Yes on 1 lies in their ads because they thing Mainers are gullible enough to believe them - but that you know otherwise: Mainers are smart involved citizens, and because they care for their fellow Mainers, their neighbors, they will vote No on 1.

While I agree with your suggestion for ads, I also think that Matt is correct about the end result. Door knocking and get out the vote efforts will pay off in spades while the ads are necessarily focused on a very small group of people - the mushy middle.

Laurie Wagner | October 26, 2009 1:03 AM

From my point of view, one of the ‘huge points being missed’ here is that while advertising may indeed move only a tiny fraction of people, we keep finding ourselves in the very position of needing that tiny fraction of people.

Re: our press, it seems a legitimate area of concern whether an ad model that at the very least contributed to losing in California should be continued. And it struck me as a little disingenuous to imply that any alternative ad models would be by definition ‘arguments that are lecturing, polarizing or angry’. Among other segments of our society engaged in this discourse, there are many school districts across this country using lgbt materials in diversity education, some have been for decades. They have somehow managed to find acceptance for their programs, make the distinction between teaching tolerance (including lgbt families) to small children and sex education designed to prepare teenagers for safe sex. We might have something to learn from them because we seem so unable to make that basic distinction on any level when the right comes after us on it.

At this point its too late to change the ads or even have that debate. What we can do is stop denigrating each other: questioning a strategy doesn’t do that, calling each other armchair quarterbacks does.

I found it uncomfortable when after 911 Bush framed it that one didn’t care about their country if they didn’t support the war. I feel the same when having concerns about strategy is construed as nonsupport for those doing the work. We all want Jesse to succeed and appreciate the work being done there.

I think that our press and bloggers have done an excellent job this last year following some exciting and painful chapters in our history. In terms of their raising questions and concerns, in the end it is the role, the prerogative and responsibility of a free press.

Re: Emily and Philip's point, I heard Helen Thomas (white house journalist through 10 presidents) say last week that the American people can take the truth, they just can't take lies. When you've seen that much history, you know.

Great article Matt. It was nice to have met you again in person at the No on 1 Campaign Headquarter today in Portland, Maine. I'm glad you took the armchair critics to task for their criticism of the No on 1 Campaign insofar as their handling of the ads are concerned. I wish there are more leaders like you who's willing to come canvass with the rest of us grassroots activists and I wish the armchair critics would turn off their computers and step outside to join us with this effort as well. It would do much for their theorizing about what's really going on in Maine. From having been here on the ground, I am confident that Jesse Connolly is running a disciplined campaign and he's sticking to principles and this is to our advantage because Mainers don't like outsiders telling them what to do. As far as Phillip's assertion that the Yes side has been framing the debate is concerned, that is not the case. If anything, our side framed the debate about this being a Maine issue and Mainers care about equality for their friends and family. What I'm experiencing here on the ground is that those Maine values are true. Mainers really do care about their LGBT fellows. Two of the hosts that I know of, one being my hosts, have been straight allies. Let me remind everyone that in our rush to judgment about the weakness of the No on 1 Campaign, in this election cycle, there isn't a persuasion work being done on either side as far as the ground campaign is concerned, the work is being focused on GOTV. That's where the real work is. I challenge all the armchair critics, including but not limited to: Phillip Minton, Andrew Sullivan, Mike Tidmus et al. to get up off their armchair and take a volunteer vacation and join us in Maine for this last stretch of the campaign. We could really use your help. Besides, it will give you something to really write about.

Finally, all of the focus on television ads, both in Maine and California, misses a huge point, namely, that advertising rarely moves more than a tiny fraction of people to change their minds on any candidate, subject or product that people feel they know well. And if there's one issue that everyone thinks they know about, it's marriage.

If that's true, then why was so much of money raised by the No Campaign in California spent on TV ads? A door-to-door campaign is of course harder to organize in a bigger state, but also more help is available in a state with a much larger LGBTQA population. And the Yes Campaign didn't do a bad job of it out there.

Personally, I think the Maine ads are pretty good, although they aren't aimed at me (or anyone reading this thread). And they're significantly different from the ads in California, in that they show same-sex couples and LGBT families, respond more quickly to the right's claims, actually mention the word "marriage," and have been much more aggressive.

Maybe you could clarify: California ran some ads, and you said they were good and the best for the campaign. Maine runs very different ads, and you say they're good and the best for the campaign. What's up with that?

Matt Foreman responded by email, and I'm putting up his response here:

Alex -

The problem with California for all campaigns is scale. Given our community's size, infrastructure, lack of allies, etc. there's just no way we could mount the kind of face-to-face effort required for marriage. Hence, the reliance on TV. This applies to almost all efforts in CA, not just by us but by virtually anyone who's ever worked in CAr. Our opponents, on the other hand, have a built-in field capacity through their churches and an in-person messaging ability we cannot currently match. While we do have religious allies, they are vastly outnumbered and do not have the same fervor as the other side across the board. Even with these advantages, the other side had to invest just as heavily in TV.

Post Prop 8 polling showed that our side's ads were quite effective. People remembered them and found them compelling - they even said they remembered more of ours than theirs.

I like the ME ads better (but I'm not unbiased) because they feature gay couples and because they really push the value of equality. The campaign here can be more nimble - it's actually had resources earlier than in Prop 8, and the costs of getting things up are - well, there's no comparison. Also, Jesse and his team saw what happened in CA and were prepared for it.

Bottom line: the meme that we lost Prop 8 (as opposed to the other side and homophobia baked into society's genes over centuries winning) is simply wrong. In ME we have so many things going in our direction that we didn't in CA - scale, marriage in a next door state for 5 years, one of the least religious states in the country, campaign leadership that defeated a statewide anti-gay initiative, a much more robust field effort, etc. Yet, it looks like it will be a nail-biter.

If, goddess forbid, we lose here, can we remember why that was - and it sure as hell won't be because our side was somehow responsible.

Please feel free to put this up on the site.

And, Alex, thanks for all your wonderful postings and insights!


Listening to Matt Foreman strategize about what Maine should do strikes me as one step away from suicide. It was Foreman who washed his hands of the "No on 8" campaign, turning the operation over to Steve Smith midway through. He lost it for us! Now Foreman seeks to impart sage advice in another state. Why doesn't Maine cut out the middle man and just hire Steve Smith on their own. Then they can lose just like we did in CA.

Matt Foreman | October 29, 2009 1:14 PM

I don't know what they hell you are talking about. I was never involved in the No on 8 campaign and, therefore, could not have "washed my hands" of it.

I was - and remain - involved in Let California Ring, a non-political, public education effort to change hearts and minds on marriage.

I have great respect for many of the members of the No on 8 executive committee, but I had nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign or its decisions.

That commenter is obviously talking out their ass. It's hard to make sense when your mouth is covered up like that.

I've always wondered why there are no ads made that show the denial of civil rights to LTGB people in action. Showing a long term partner being denied hospital visitation, or a person being fired because they put a picture of their partner on their desk at work would make real the pain and harm the members of the LGTB community experience every day.

I think the American people are very invested in equal treatment and fair play. Showing how these concepts are denied TLGB people would solidify the rhetoric we usually use in the minds of the electorate. I suppose that there is some reason that I haven't thought of yet which would explain the absence of such ads. Is there one?

Amy McDonald | October 26, 2009 3:39 PM

While I see your point I believe some ads should be aimed at changing the minds of those the opposition and us assume are going to vote for them.I'm not talking about ads that outright attack them but ads that appeal to their sense of family.
What if your child is gay? Would you wish to not only deny them the opportunity to have a family but yourself the ability to share in it? I see people like that wonderful old World War 2 vet who so eloquently explained why he supported marriage equality as the type of people that should be sought after to do adds.

Sargon Bighorn | October 26, 2009 4:48 PM

Well stated point of view. I tend to agree. But if a voter has already made up his/her/its mind, how effective is a face to face? And realistically speaking, a minority will never win at the voting game, even with allies. We'll hope for the best in Maine, but the real challenge will come with a defeat. How will Maine's Gay citizens respond?

Matt has already described an effective new approach to marriage equality advertising.

I say run with his suggestion, to wit:

The kid/bullying-at-schools attack ads will be effective because they go right to the parental-protection gut of parents. They will carry a double-whammy: first, that young people are bullied (read "beaten, bruised and bloodied") at school because they or their family members are gay or lesbian; and second, that kids will come home asking their parents for answers about how to defend themselves. Whether we like it or not, one reason parents expect the school to keep a lid on bullying is so that they're not put on the spot and shamed by their own children over their inability to keep them safe.

I'll try to enunciate more clearly this time.

I disagree with the argument that certain ad strategies are somehow a priori only available to the side opposed to marriage equality.

That's the extent of my disagreement. As far as the No on 1 campaign is concerned, we agree that Jesse's rock-steady approach has been an amazing thing to watch.