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Trying to Figure Out the Intent and Impact of Political Ads

Kathleen Kennedy says the big difference she's discovered so far is that political ads are much more transitory than commercial ads.
Kathleen Kennedy says the big difference she's discovered so far is that political ads are much more transitory than commercial ads.
Kathleen Kennedy says the big difference she's discovered so far is that political ads are much more transitory than commercial ads.
Kathleen Kennedy says the big difference she's discovered so far is that political ads are much more transitory than commercial ads.

Clarification: The list of options for you to check on political ads was incomplete on the earlier version of this story. The complete list is below. Also, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania operates flackcheck and factcheck.org  

Like the cicadas -- only a lot noisier -- political ads are about to blanket Ohio and other swing states. And what’s coming is likely to be more negative, more misleading and more targeted than ever.

For evidence, look to the 14 months leading up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. More than 133,000 national broadcast and cable TV ads aired – at a cost of more than $156 million. Those numbers from theWesleyan Media Projectdon’t include efforts to sway hearts and minds inanyof the rest of the primaries and caucuses – including Ohio’s -- nor in the general election.   

And while the ads started out on a positive note, they pivoted to nasty pretty quickly. And those who watch the claims and patterns of the ads say the reason is pretty simple:

An ever growing share of the ads and spending are being done by outside groups, rather than the candidates themselves or even political parties. Many are SuperPACS aligned – at least indirectly -- with the candidates. Others – often referred to as dark-money groups -- qualify under IRS codes for educational charities to keep their donors and spending more secret.

On the GOP side alone, ads from outside groups – as opposed to the candidates themselves -- are up more than 23,000 percent over 2008. And they already account for more than half the ads and three quarters of the spending in this presidential campaign cycle.It’s a dynamic tied to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 calledCitizens United

Travis Ridout -- one of the directors at the Wesleyan project and a professor at Washington State University --  says candidates are aware of potential backlash from attack ads. “But if it’s some group, especially a group you’ve never heard of before, there’s no real accountability, no way to hold those groups responsible for attacks they (voters) may not like. And therefore, the groups can get away with it.”

Kathleen Kennedy,a lecturer at the University of Akron who specializes in commercial advertising, agrees outside groups make all the difference in tone.

“If brands could have outside political action committees, we wouldn’t want to turn on our TV sets, or listen to the radio or hear commercials.”

What kind of rise are they getting?

Kennedy has spent a lot of time lately in the marketing lab at the University of Akron. One-by-one, she’s outfitted about a dozen people with delicate headgear to measure their reaction as they’re bombarded for about a half-hour with political ads. She’s measuring their EEGs, tracking their eyes and watching the tiniest of facial expressions. It’s all common stuff in brand research. What she wants to find out is if it works in political advertising, too.

“Our goal  is to really look at how do these ads perform and what emotional response do they elicit, unrelated, somewhat to people’s political views.

Separate from the biometric readings, she asks people to rate the ads by five measurements: how pleasant, important, informative, believable and fair. But the axis of two of those points is what really matters: Pleasant and informative.

And pleasantness is very much in the political eye of the beholder.

For someone like Sheri Risaliti – a study participant, Bernie Sanders supporter – and no fan of Ted Cruz: “ “I really didn’t like anything with Ted Cruz in it. That picture of him, just revulsion.”

A Bernie Sanders ad introducing him to voters and set to Simon and Garfunkel's "America" pleased just about everyone -- but few thought it provided any significant information.
A Bernie Sanders ad introducing him to voters and set to Simon and Garfunkel's "America" pleased just about everyone -- but few thought it provided any significant information.

Then there’s Amy Schwan, a Donald Trump supporter, who can’t stand Hillary Clinton.

Kennedy presses her.

“Is there any ad that you could watch for Hillary without cringing?”

“Maybe,” Schwan responds. “If she wasn’t speaking or if her face wasn’t on it. If it just maybe talked about her accomplishments.” Then she adds quickly, “I don’t think there are any.”


ButKennedy says some ads transcend political points of view – both conscious and subconscious.

Just about everyone agrees a Bernie Sanders ad set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is very pleasant -- and very meaningless.

Everryond says an ad featuring a nearly nude photo of Melania Trump is out of bounds.

And a “Lying Ted” Cruz ad -- featuring his increasingly elongated nose wrapping around his neck – most folks saw it as “creepy,”  even if they thought it was true.


What’s out of bounds?

Both the Lying Ted and First LadyMelaniaads are attack ads paid for and distributed by outside groups. They’re the kind of ads most people say they hate. But if trends hold, those are the ads that are likely to pound voters in  swing states over the next six months.

After all, 60 percent of the ads went on the attack in 2012, up from 50 percent in 2008 and less than 30 percent in 2000.

Chance York,who teaches political advertising at Kent State University, says the reason is pretty simple.

“When you attack the other side, that’s when you open up the idea of persuasion. You may not at a conscious level have your audience saying, ‘Oh I’m really doubting this candidate now.’ But at kind of a subconscious level, they’re saying, ‘Well, maybe there is something to this attack. Maybe this person isn’t who I thought they were.”

York adds a huge caveat. The pool of persuadables is a really shallow one.

“Some research has shown negative advertising can only swing about 1 percent of voters either way. So if you want to attack, attack, attack an opponent, you’re not going to get a lot of return on investment.”

Then he adds a caveat to the caveat: Sometimes, in some swing states like Ohio, 1 percent is all you need.

Not all negative ads are equal – or bad

Most people see negative ads and attack ads as the same thing – and political scientists define negative advertising as anything that mentions an opponent’s name. But not all negative ads are created equal.

There are the more informative “contrasting” ads that compare positions and resumes of candidates. And the Wesleyan Project’s Ridout says they can offer a big bonus for voters.

“It can sometimes make them want to learn more information about the candidates. Negative ads are also typically more informative. Your typical positive ad is one in which you meet their family, they say they share your values and you don’t learn much beyond that.”

Contrasting political ads have their commercial-brand parallels -- the Coke-Pepsi wars, for example.

So do positive ads. The University of Akron’s Kennedy says the logic of positive political ads is roughly the same as why Buick wants someone who recently bought a Buick to watch its commercial.

“It’s really important to reinforce how you feel about your car and your product so that you spread that message around. … It’s very important for candidates to do this. It keeps people energized and motivated.”

And commercial advertising even has its equivalent of attack ads. One example is those pitching home security systems with a message of fear.

But political advertising is where the image of the world as ominous place takes shape most often.

And Kent State’s Chance York says there’s a risk when those ads crowd onto the airways.

“If you have two candidates going at it with negative ads back and forth being highly uncivil, it could have an effect. Especially with moderate voters, you get a demobilization effect, where they just kind of turn off, ‘this is a nasty campaign, I just want to stay home.’”

Unless, he notes, that’s the purpose.

The University of Akron study is trying to determine which triggers work in political and commercial advertising.
Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU
The University of Akron study is trying to determine which triggers work in political and commercial advertising.

About those political ads: Stop! Look! Don’t go crazy! 

You can’t stop political attack ads from invading your personal space. Millionaires and billionaires have made sure of that with court decisions and friends in Congress. 

But you can render them harmless – even make them useful. 

Follow these steps: 

  1. Political advertisers know when and how you’re vulnerable. When exposed to an attack ad, shut off your political persuasion and become keenly aware of the moment. What day is it? Time? What are you doing? Is this a station or show or web site that attracts specific incomes, or gender, or race, or age? They know. Do you? 

  1. Don’t listen for the message. Instead, dissect the production. Identify techniques likely to stir emotion and cause you to disregard logic. This is fantasy chaining, building on one gimmick after another to increase the chance of mind manipulation. Listen to the sounds, the tone of voice, look at the lighting, the way the images are played to suggest an admirable quality or to repulse. Are there patriotic or unpatriotic images? 

  1. Fact check. Watch the ad again, noting key phrases or claims. Check the internet for reliable journalistic sources that have examined the claims. See below for details. 

  1. Share your thoughts. Go to the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page (do we put the hashtag here?) and leave your comments. There, you can watch an attack ad, go through the steps above and share thoughts with others. The page will be maintained by the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan civic engagement group working with Ohio news organizations this year to give voice to citizens in the election process. 

Who came up with the four steps?  

David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. In conversations with Ohio journalists, his organization has challenged Ohio media to help citizens identify a campaign process that works better. Find a model you like? Make a suggestion on the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page and media will explore it. 

Here’s how to fact-check the message 

  1. Ask who is responsible for the ad. If it’s a candidate, the ad will say so. If it’s a super PAC, you can find help on such sites as http://www.opensecrets.org/http://www.followthemoney.org/, the Sunlight Foundation’s http://politicaladsleuth.com/ and http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/ 


  1. Focus on substance. Explains Travis Ridout of http://mediaproject.wesleyan.edu/ “If we peel back the scary images, the scary music, all of those elements of the ad that are designed to make you feel a particular way, what is the actual message in that ad? Is there any message beyond, ‘You should be scared of this candidate?’” One way to take a look at the range of claims being made is to compare: https://politicaladarchive.org/ 


  1. Find good help. Political fact-checking is a cottage industry of its own. Some that have been doing it for a while are http://www.factcheck.org/ (They pay attention to more than just ads; debate and speech rundowns are available as well) and http://www.flackcheck.org/. Both are associated Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Another option: http://www.politifact.com/  


  1. Pay attention to who is paying attention to you – and how. There are people gathering detailed information about every American, hoping to influence votes and gain control of government. Because Ohio is a large swing state, we are a top target. News media don’t know when you’ve been micro-targeted for negative ads on your computers or in your mailbox. So…. 

  1. Take action: With a cell phone,take a photo or video of a negative internet ad or mailer and send it to negativeads@yourvoteohio.org  Or you can do the same with a screenshot of your computer screen. The ads will be catalogued by The Ohio Media Project, a collaborative of major news organizations in Ohio, the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, and the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan civic engagement group. The effort is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

M.L. Schultze
M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.