How Persuasive Are Political Ads?

How Persuasive Are Political Ads?

My work on persuasion has two goals. To help good people to bring about positive change using the skills and strategies of persuasion; and to help good people protect themselves from these same skills. You can learn a lot from the persuasion professionals who design political ads. In my previous post on political ads, I talked about the formula they use, and how it begins with location. But wait, there’s more! That’s what this post is about.

Persuasion Guide: Keep It Simple

The persuasion professionals who design the ads know that the story is the story is the story. They never stray from it. They don’t explain too much. They let you, want you, to interpret for yourself the meaning of the pictures and symbols they show you. They want to influence you as a side effect, rather than a direct effect.

They know stories are pictures painted with words, and when you add moving pictures, it’s incredibly compelling. They know that it should be easy for you to understand the point of view promoted in the ad. The goal is to take someone to the end of the road of thought on something small, to get that tiny chunk of mental commitment. The less complex the story, the more obvious the point made, the more likely someone will cease thinking and settle in to the desired conclusion. This serves campaigns well, because once one group of voters is ‘in the bag’ they can free up resources to target the next demographic.

Persuasion Guide: Be Directive

The whole point of the story they tell is for you to take a mental action of some kind, be it a change of mind, change of heart, or to entertain doubt. The voice intones, “Is he ready?” After showing you evidence that he isn’t, the answer should easily appear in your brain. The desired result? A small drop of commitment to the idea. A bit of leaning towards a decision. Because the consistency signal tells us that once you’ve started down a trail, you’re unlikely to question it again. Instead, you’ll dismiss any cognitive dissonance and keep right on going.

The monkey-see monkey do sequence goes like this. See and learn (from a few well chosen details illustrated with strong signals). Understand (they imply or type out the meaning they want you to understand). Respond (take the action we require of you…because a little commitment leads to a lot of conviction).

Persuasion Guide: Vivid Language

They seek to trigger emotions. Turns out, there’s an actual catalog of emotions to trigger, and buttons that trigger them! Emotions like disgust. Fear. Anger. Happiness. Surprise. Expectation. Pride. And all of them can be aimed at the feeling of acceptance that what’s been shown has enough truthiness to be mistaken for the truth. The more successfully the ad appeals to your feelings, the fewer times they need to show it to you.

To help in this appeal to your feelings, they know that ads should appeal to your senses, to ‘make sense,’ as it were, via pictures, words, sounds, and symbols. To make it VIVID, so it stands out from the background noise. That’s where the symbols do their subconscious work. Waving grass, clouds in the sky, grainy pictures, a waving flag, flying bird, dark backgrounds, eager faces. These pictures speak volumes to us.

So the ads put the emphasis first on what is seen. If it’s a really good ad, it should work with or without sound. Seeing is believing, as we say. Show us, don’t tell us, and you’ll see what they want you to see in order to make sense of the mixed messages you’ll be hearing throughout the campaign. They only use words to highlight key ideas. Let the pictures tell the story.
No Mixed Messages

The basic message of any campaign ad is ‘Our candidate is good. The opponent is bad.’ So the professional ad makers make sure what you hear matches what you see! A mixed message could kill a campaign! Take one John Kerry, saluting as he reports for duty. Label him consistently with flip flop. Get him to defend himself on two different votes by claiming they are a mixed message. (If possible, get him to say words like, “I voted for it before I voted against it, and I’ll tell you why!” …Wow, Matilda, that’s advertising GOLD! There will be plenty of mixed messages. But they don’t want them coming from their campaign, or their advertising. Pundits call this ‘discipline.’ Meanwhile, the mix of messages opponents say the opposite of what they put in the ads. But if you’re the adman, that’s not your problem. Not if you have great ads!

They know not to jump around too much. Even in this age of ADHD, they know to stay with the important scenes long enough for them to register. You can tell which are the important scenes…they get the screen time. Or, if they must jump around, they’ll run a sequence of similar scenes that make the same point. But they know it takes you a few seconds to draw a conclusion. They design these ads to give you that time.

Next post is about my opinion of the Sarah Palin pick for V.P. The next time I post in this series on political ads (next week), I’ll talk about the 3 Kinds of Ads. For now, I’d love to hear your comments on political advertising, how it effects you, and how you respond.
be well,


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