The Psychology of Political Ads
How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds
Oct. 22, 2008 -- What do political campaigns and M&M's have in common?
Quite a bit, when it comes to advertising.
The first televised presidential ads were run by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
The ads were created by Rosser Reeves, the same adman who touted candy-coated
chocolates that "melt in your mouth, not in your hands."
Just as he distilled the image of M&M's, Reeves aimed to portray
Eisenhower "as someone who was friendly but strong," says Nicholas A.
Valentino, PhD, a political psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin.
"The strategy for producing these ads was quite similar to the way
commercial ads promote their products. You craft an ad that highlights the very
best qualities of the product."
Well, even though the same effort goes into modern political ads, we've come
a long way from the Eisenhower era. From promotional ads to attack ads, the
sophistication and the harshness of some ads might shock even the most hardened
Of course, it's no secret that political campaigns use advertising to attack
the competition. And there's a reason political ads tend to be more negative
than conventional advertising, says John G. Geer, PhD, a political scientist at
Vanderbilt University. While a business can take years to raise its brand above
the competition, a political campaign has only a few months.
"Politics is a one-day sale," Geer tells WebMD. "And on that day
you need a plurality or majority of the market." That means ads must make a
strong impression -- and do it fast.
As more and more money goes into political campaigns, advertisements are
getting slicker. "They're like short movies," Valentino tells WebMD.
"The combination of visuals and audio can trigger very specific emotions --
positive or negative emotions -- and we think these have important consequences
for political cognition and behavior."
Ted Brader, PhD, a University of Michigan political scientist, explores this
concept in his book, Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals
in Political Ads Work. Brader showed participants a series of political ads
he designed. He found he could trigger specific emotions by changing music and
imagery, while leaving the script and narration the same.
Grainy images of guns, ambulances, and other disturbing scenes combined with
tense music evoked fear. "Feel-good imagery," Brader says, "like in
a Wonder Bread commercial," made people feel happy, hopeful, and
But how do these emotions translate to voting behaviors?