Kids in Campaign Ads: Cute or Creepy?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Using underage kids in campaign ads? A cute way to humanize a candidate — or a creepy way to exploit your kids? As Justice Stewart said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

Luckily, we are presented with two recent examples of candidates using their children to score political points. One example (Matt Bevin’s), I think, works. The other (Ben Sasse’s), I think, doesn’t.

A few caveats: First, it is obviously fraught with danger for me to discuss someone’s family. But I would suggest that when they pay money to put their children on television, this sort of discussion — if done in a respectful manner — becomes fair game.

As a dad, my intention here is to critique the campaign and the candidates — not the children, themselves. (I am well aware that Harry Truman once threatened a critic who wrote a less than favorable review about his daughter’s singing.)

It’s also worth exploring this question: Why do candidates often feel the need to include their families in ads, in the first place? There are noble — and less noble — reasons. These spots can soften up a grumpy or aloof candidate, they can provide a testimony (from the folks who know him best!) about a candidate, and they can — if properly executed — cut through the clutter of ordinary campaign ads.

On the other hand, candidates have been known to furtively utilize these family spots in order to demonstrate a contrast with an opponent who has some sort of perceived deficiency — an opponent who is divorced, childless, or embroiled in some sort of sex scandal. Doing this can subtly send the a message about the other guy — without the candidate having to say it himself.

But while the motives are worth noting, I’m more interested in whether or not candidates can actually pull it off.

So let’s look at the two recent ads mentioned above.

The first one — put out by the campaign of Kentucky Senate candidate Matt Bevin — is quite well done.

“Mitch McConnell is telling a bunch of lies about my dad,” the commercial begins. But they somehow get away with it. Why? Well, they’re cute kids. And there is upbeat music. And it feels fun. And, once they score their political points, they move on.

Watch and tell me if you disagree:

Again, this one just seems to work. Maybe it’s a style thing. But style matters.

Now, let’s look at a more recent ad that, frankly, I think is a disaster. Maybe it’s just me?

Take a look, and let me know what you think:

I’m trying to figure out what I don’t like about this ad (there are so many things), but the bottom line is that it feels inauthentic. I mean, why would kids this age be so interested in ObamaCare?

The line, “He despises it,” feels especially coached (Sasse has been accused of previously supporting the law, I suppose it’s important to reiterate that he hates ObamaCare.) And calling their dad an “outsider” also feels like they are intentionally hitting some propagandistic message points that poll well.

Both these things got my “Spidey sense” tingling.

I’m left pondering a few things: Why are these kids so interested in health care policy (is this like Jimmy Carter getting foreign policy advice from his daughter)? — where’s mom? — why is it so dark? — and why is the music so damn depressing?

(Okay, the part at the end where the little girl says she wants a horse is cute! That saves it from being a total disaster.)

Ultimately, it seems that using your underage children in campaign ads is just as fraught with danger as writing about someone else’s kids being used in them. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it right, and that’s easier said than done.

The problem is that candidates in, in the maelstrom of political war, they lose touch with reality — they cease to be good arbiters of what works and what doesn’t.

And once you get into this business of using family in ads, there is a fine line between cute and creepy; you never want to be on the wrong side of that line.