By one estimate, over $7.5 billion was spent on advertising during the 2016 election campaign.1 The presidential candidates alone accounted for most of the sum, and virtually all of the audiovisual advertising called for music to underscore its persuasive messages.2 As Nicholas Cook has argued, music serves as “the ultimate hidden persuader,” which renders it particularly effective in political contexts, since the consumers of campaign ads are not (necessarily) aware of the underscore and yet are receiving subliminal messages through the affectively selected musical sounds that accompany its images, graphics, and dialogue.3 A whole industry has arisen to provide production/library/stock music for such advertising in the form of short cues or tracks that have been created or refashioned to establish a certain affect.4 The majority of campaign advertisements, whether on radio, television, or the Internet, rely on these precomposed music tracks, created by unnamed composers. Only exceptionally do we know the identity of the composer for a commercial spot, and then it is typically by a noted artist like Diplo, whose 2014 single “Revolution” appeared in Bernie Sanders’s ad It’s a Revolution. [End Page 501]
The nature of the ad message determines the style of the music licensed from the production music company. In the case of political advertising, the moods are limited to the binary opposition of positive and negative (the negative called “attack ads”), with the possibility of a hybrid spot that shifts from negative (the opponent) to positive (the candidate). It stands to reason that the music selected for placement in the commercials would reflect those basic moods: dark, foreboding, even threatening sounds characterize the adversary, while bright, often patriotic tones are reserved for the sponsoring candidate.
To analyze the persuasive power of these ads, we assembled a roundtable of scholars who could discuss the effectiveness of campaign advertising from diverse disciplinary perspectives. We looked to musicologists and political scientists associated with Trax on the Trail to help us assess two spots for the leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The choices—Hillary’s America from day 4 of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia and an untitled video (referred to here as Make America Safe Again) from day 1 of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Cleveland—are typical for the promotional approaches of the two camps.5 These ads also illustrate the parties’ differing approaches to one of the defining issues of the campaign, immigration, which remains a pressing concern after the election.
Hillary’s America features Clinton sharing her vision for a diverse country by referencing the cultural background and military service of Humayun Khan, the U.S. army captain who was born in the United Arab Emirates to Pakistani parents and who sacrificed his own life in Baghdad in 2004 to protect fellow soldiers from a car bomb. Presenting mid-shots of Clinton as she spoke about Khan’s relevance for America, the tribute video was shown just before Khan’s parents, Ghazala and Khizr Khan, addressed the convention with a passionate call for multicultural unity in the face of Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims.6
Trump’s video similarly invokes the memory of a fallen defender of America, border patrol agent Brian Terry, who was shot and killed when a gun battle broke out between agents stationed along the Arizona-Mexico border and members of a Mexican drug cartel in 2010. Screened during the Make America Safe Again segment of the convention’s first day, the video unfolds through a series of Fox News headline items that highlight crimes by undocumented aliens. The footage uses graphics to present information about criminal acts that have threatened the security of Americans and thus put into question Obama’s and Clinton’s immigration policies. The spot is followed by a tribute to Terry and a call to action by his sister, Kelly Terry-Willis, and his brother, Kent Terry, who appear at the convention via video, live from the Arizona-Mexico border.
Each of the expert panelists screened and evaluated the effectiveness...