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The Psychology of Political Ads

How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds
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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?

Feel-Good Ads vs. Fear Ads

"The feel-good ads are mobilizing," Brader tells WebMD. "They make people more interested in participating, more interested in the election. And they reinforce people's prior views, beliefs, and attitudes."

Feel-good ads can be biographical, or they may highlight a candidate's strengths on certain issues. 

"People regard fear ads as the worst kind of negative ad," Brader says. "That's a misconception." Fear is useful in political discourse, he says. It can help direct the public's attention to important issues. It prompts people to seek more information and rethink their course of action. It "unlocks the grip that habit holds over people's decisions."

In other words, it's the positive ads that make people act without thinking, while fear leads people to evaluate information more carefully. In Brader's study, the fear ads were the only ones that persuaded people to change their minds.

But there is a caveat. "My prediction would be that fear ads work better where there is a basis in the environment for the fear," Brader says. "If people turn around and see that everything is actually sunny and going well, the ad won't work."

When Negative Is Positive

Geer, the author of In Defense of Negativity, argues that negative ads in general have been unfairly maligned. "There's this belief that negative ads are misleading and don't inform people. Actually, they are much more informative than the positive ads."

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