Election ads depict a lost America

In the 2012 presidential election race, both parties focus on images of factories and hard hats, like this scene from an ad supporting President Barack Obama.

You’ve seen them on TV a lot lately—campaign ads featuring factory workers wearing hard hats, safety goggles and sporting either sad or happy looks on their faces. 

A massive amount of advertising for Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama features manufacturing.  But the thing is -- not many Americans do that kind of work anymore.

Elizabeth Wilner analyzes political campaign ads for Kantar Media.  Wilner said if people only go by what’s shown on TV, they’d think more Americans punch the clock at the plant every day than actually do. Manufacturing accounts for just nine percent of employment in the United States, she says.  So what’s with all the hard hats?  Why are politicians so fixated on factory workers?

“There’s a narrow sliver of the electorate that both candidates are playing to. And that sliver happens to run through Ohio, Michigan,  Pennsylvania -- places where a lot of people are dependent on the health of manufacturing" said Wilner. "So those people’s concerns are disproportionately represented in campaign ads."

Mike Earnest was featured in a pro-Obama campaign ad released in June.

Earnest said that even though fewer people are working in manufacturing and more in the service industry, he’s glad manufacturing’s still getting some attention.  “That’s where the money is at,” Earnest said.  “If you go work at the grocery store up town, you’re working for minimum wage.  You can’t survive on minimum wage.”

Earnest worked for a company that was bought out by Bain Capital, which at the time was run by Mitt Romney. Bain shut the factory in Indiana down, and Earnest was out a job. He said he’s voted Republican his whole life, but this year is different.

“I cannot vote for Mitt Romney. I cannot. He took my job," said Earnest.

Gus Faucher  is an economist with PNC Financial Services.  He argues that a bunch of campaign ads don’t negate the fact that there isn’t much either candidate can do right now about manufacturing’s shrinking role in America.

“There  are policies that help around the edges” said Faucher.  “But I don’t think that those larger term trends of productivity and globalization are going to go away.” No matter what the campaign ads say before November.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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