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The Psychology of Political Ads

How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds
By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 1950s politician.

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.

Triggering Emotions

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 enthusiastic. 

But how do these emotions translate to voting behaviors?

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