How Persuasive Are Political Ads? (pt 3)
In the previous two posts in this series on Political Advertising, I talked about aspects of the formula that make ads compelling, including location, and a few guides. In this next and final part of this series, I’ll talk about the three kinds of political ads, and using the right ad at the right time for maximum persuasive effect.
Political persuasion experts have a catalog of options when it comes to making their candidate look good and the other candidate look bad. And there are three specific ad forms that they can use to package this message. The Attack Ad (popularly known as a ‘negative ad.’) The Issue Ad. The Image Ad.
Attack ads use Sun Tsu’s wisdom about the art of war. Make your enemy’s strength into a weakness, and your weakness into a strength. In the case of the Kerry campaign, his strength was his war hero status. How to make it into a weakness? One swift boat attack ad. In this case, the Bush campaign hoped that ‘the enemy’ (I’m not making this up, that’s how they viewed their opponents!) is taken by surprise and waits awhile to respond. Because if he fails to respond quickly, and leaves it boiling with no response, that will send exactly the desired message. The message? Coward! And the Mission? Accomplished. The lesson? It is dangerous to a candidate to fail to respond to attack ads.
What Kerry might have done is stand up to the attack. Not attack back, but instead, draw the line and say “This is wrong. The American people are better than this. It is unacceptable to say you support our men and women in uniform and then condone this kind of behavior. I call upon the President to repudiate in the strongest possible terms this unacceptable, unAmerican type of negative advertising. If he does not repudiate it,I trust the American people will notice how often my opponents say one thing and do another. I believe they themselves call that flipflopping. I call it lying. Stop it, and stop it now. ” Of course, the Kerry campaign failed to respond in a timely manner, and the damage was done. It might have made several percentage points difference in the election outcome.
What a Lovely Image
Attack ads are not the only kind of ad. There are image ads, too. These are the ones that spin the desired narrative about the candidate, or the undesired narrative about the opponent. And just like what most people do when they pad their resumes in order to apply for a job, the narrative leaves more out than it puts in, and highlights whatever supports the story and its desired result. This is in the grand tradition of story telling. It gives people a chance to decide who they most closely identify with, who most closely conforms to their expectations of a leader, who is most likely to attend to what the voter cares about. Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning In America’ ad accomplished this.
The best response to a good image ad is to make a negative image ad that shows the opposite image of your opponent than the one she wants you to believe, which neutralizes the hypnotic effect of positive imagery with more long lasting negative imagery. The best response to a negative image ad is a positive one. How do people decide which to believe? It depends on several factors. The quality of the ad (production values, coherence and integrity of the message) and the quantity of the ad (how often it is shown) and how much the reality or facts of the situation are known and in the public eye.
It’s a HOT Issue
This brings us to Issue Ads. These ads use two part contrast to make a case about where a candidate stands on a hot (read, polarizing!) issue. It attempts to tell you what the issue is, why the issue matters, and why that’s important to you in determining how to vote. In this type of ad, the ad itself is in the leadership position, the politician is window dressing, and the narrative is everything. The best issue ads are the ones that evoke the strongest feelings. These tend to be social issues, religious/secular differences like reproductive rights and gay rights, or party doctrine differences like taxes, security and government spending. Here the idea is to cast the issue in stark black and white terms, so you are either for or against it.
The best counter to issue ads isn’t to attack your opponent. It’s to frame what your opponent says as misleading, and talk about the values driving the issue.
Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings
Visually, images of contrast make the point. The sound of music emphasizes the point, whether creating an ominous atmosphere, an uplifting one, or one heavy with expectation. And all of this is aimed, not at your thoughts about the candidates, but your feelings. Your feelings is where this battle is waged, because political consultants understand that feelings determine more votes than thoughts and opinions.
Even on the opinion shows, with their make-up-wearing-talking-heads sitting in front of green screens that display flashy graphics and lower third mattes to the viewing audience, the pundits are concerned with feelings, not opinion. All the talk about opinion eventually blends together into a giant sucking sound, and you, the voter, are left with a feeling. Now, only pictures and words that match your feeling make it through the noise and register in your nervous system.
The Best Defense
How can you protect yourself from political ads sucking out your brain? One way is to break them down. You’ll have plenty of chances, since an ad deemed worth running is worth running again and again and again. So one time around, turn off the sound. Second time around, listen but don’t watch. And third time around, separate fact from conclusion, and ask yourself three questions. “Is that true?” “Why are they saying this?” And “What else could it mean?”
Do I really think that you’re going to take my advice? Hey, who knows? But I’m guessing that you think you’re too busy to actively filter out the ads. Besides, some of them are remarkably compelling, moving, and frightening. Notice which ones leave the lasting impression! That creepy sensation moving up your spinal cord? That’s the kind of feeling that changes polling numbers!
All relationships boil down to moments of truth in which decisions are made based on perception. And we know that there’s something about us as people that remembers negatives longer than positives, that attends closer to fear than to vision. As the campaigns progress, don’t be surprised to find the ads taking lower blows and cheaper shots until they’ve dumbed themselves down to the most base epithets they can manufacture. Want to keep your perspective? Remember, when it’s all over but the shouting, these politicians will get back to praising each other’s honor as if none of this mattered and none of it happened. Until the next time, when they start it all over again.
As will we. Until then, I’d love to hear your comments on this election and your political persuasion.