GOP U.S. Senate candidate Marion Michael Rounds made a flop of a campaign ad. Stung by criticism in the national press and from opponent Larry Rhoden for filling his ad with non-South Dakotan stock photography, Rounds showed more un-frontrunnerly weakness by pulling the ad.

Team Rounds's predictable response has been to say that (a) the ad doesn't really matter and (b) all the other campaigns use "resources" (campaign staff, t-shirts, bumper stickers) from other states. Both responses spectacularly miss the point.

In one way, the Rounds stock-photo ad doesn't matter: there are much bigger issues on which to attack Mike Rounds. Candidate Stace Nelson gets this: he calls the ad fracas a distraction from Rounds's beholdenness to East Coast special interests, his handprints on the GOED/EB-5 scandal, his structural deficit, and how those issues make Rounds ill-suited to fight corruption and fiscal frippery in Washington. Stupid advertising choices are only gravy on the really big turkey of Rounds's failed policies and principles.

But gravy (right, Grudz?) and advertising still matter, and they matter in ways that differ from the other resources candidates assemble for their campaigns. Comparing stock photos in an ad to staffers and supplies falls apart when we consider primary functions. The main reason a candidate hires staff is to get work done. Hiring a South Dakotan over a Minnesotan or Virginian has some message-sending value, but it doesn't trump comparing resumes and picking the person who can raise more money, plot better strategy, and write better ads (not to mention hide your shady finances from South Dakota observers). A South Dakota candidate can score some brownie points by buying t-shirts and car magnets locally, but concerns about budget, timeframe, and quality can override that ancillary message concern.

An ad is all message. In Rounds's stock-photo ad, the message was all metaphor. There was no new policy pronouncement or exposition on details of the GOP platform. The ad was all symbolism: Mike Rounds's soothing smile and soothing buzz-buzz-buzz over soothing images. The audio-visual text was a symbolic waving of Mike Rounds's family photos meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy and want him as part of our family.

But Mike Rounds's family photos didn't show his South Dakota family. They didn't show his kids and grandkids. They didn't show his friends and neighbors. They didn't show the people and places of our extended South Dakota family (mitakuye oyasin!) Rounds's chosen symbols fairly screamed, "I don't need to acknowledge you! I just need you to acknowledge me!"

Rounds created a text to symbolize himself as a good South Dakotan. The symbols he chose, on thoughtful analysis, show him to be inauthentic and inattentive to the South Dakotans he would serve. And for a campaign that's been raising money and taking pictures since 2012, the inability to assemble seven pretty photos of South Dakotans shows gross laziness. If we're grading papers, Rounds's text gets an F, a fact Rounds acknowledges by withdrawing his text in embarrassment.

The pedigree of Rounds stock photos is integral to the failure of his ad in a way that the pedigree of Rhoden's staff or Nelson's swag cannot be. Rhoden's staff and Nelson's swag are at least working. Rounds has poured money into a high-priced team that can't perform basic functions effectively. Gee, that sounds a lot like how Rounds ran South Dakota for eight years: lots of money thrown at failed projects.

See? Symbolism matters.