How Persuasive are Political Ads?
We hate them. We rely on them. Because we believe them.
Today I’m going to talk about the persuasive structure of television ads for political campaigns, and their impact. Impact on whom? On myself, for starters. But in the bigger picture, the broader impact is what interests me most, and I’m eager to write about it. This is part one of a three part blog series on the media and politics.
But first, take a gander at some of the best political ads dating back to their historical beginning with, among others, ‘I Like Ike!’
And I do like Ike…but not because of the ad! Watching it, I’m reminded that it was once an innocent age, where voting Americans bristled at the idea that they were so dumb that politicians would be marketed to them like cornflakes and soap. Said Ike’s opponent, Adlai Stephenson (to whom, by the way, Obama has been compared due to his formidable intellect and professorial speaking style), “This isn’t Ivory versus Palmolive.” It’s just not like that now. Instead of a campaign of ideas, it’s a campaign of ads. We’ll see what comes out of the conventions, but that’s how it’s turned in the last few election cycles.
Today, campaigns have got TV political ads down to a science, and considered not just normal but absolutely necessary. Internet ads are a different breed, effective in a different way, and I’ll talk about them in a future post.
They’ve got answers. I’ve got questions.
So the question is, do these ads impact our opinions about candidates, and if so, how? And in an age of sound bytes, what exactly is the difference between an advertisement and, say, a convention? Or an advertisement and a ‘debate’? Not much. Instead of open dialog between candidates, their appearances are contrived and constrained setups and punchlines. It’s all part of a now well honed formula. And guess what? They follow the formula like it’s engraved on a stone tablet brought down from the peak of Mt. Sinai.
The questions always to keep in mind, are these. What are the real ideas the candidates are advocating behind the formula? Take away the spin, and what are they telling us about how they see the world and how they will act when confronted by its challenges? And what is each campaign asking of us?
Follow The Formula
First, pick the right spot. Every venue where a politician appears these days is approached much the same way as advertisers approach any product placement.
The attention to detail, the symbolism, the unconscious associations, the visceral reactions, are all taken into account and attended to with concern and precision. Like a great fireworks display, there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. The ad has to build response potential, and the end has to deliver the response. And the response is measured.
All those polls you keep hearing about? Guess who cares about them the most? The people running the ads! Because there appears to be a direct link, at least when it comes to politics, between what we’re told on TV and what we think in our brains. An ad doesn’t try to change minds. It tries to influence in small ways, make a tiny difference, introduce a viral idea that can spread on its own. The more they take you down a particular road of thought, the more likely you’ll wind up at their desired destination. Sign post up ahead. You’ve just walked in to a place called the Advertising Zone.
More next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think about the ads you are seeing in this campaign.