The Psychology of Political Ads

How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 22, 2008

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?

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."

Geer studied every presidential ad between 1960 and 2000 and found the negative ads contain far more specifics. They have to, Geer explains, because negative ads "demand evidence. People are willing to believe the positive messages without evidence."

Geer concludes that negative ads are a positive influence because they give voters more specifics to discuss. "It's important to have information from both sides," he tells WebMD. "This generates conversation."

Still, Geer says some types of negative ads can backfire. "The public dislikes personal attacks and much prefers policy disputes," he tells WebMD. "The personal attack has a lot of risks. ... The public is pretty savvy in determining what's relevant and what's not."

Gut Reactions to Negative Ads

Whether negative ads ultimately help or hurt, the conventional wisdom is that they make people recoil. This idea is supported by a study published in the Journal of Advertising last year. Researchers found that watching extremely negative political ads is physiologically similar to seeing a snake or spider.

"We have these emotional responses when something negative comes our way," says James R. Angelini, PhD, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware. "It's a 'flight' type response."

One way to measure a flight response is to see how hard people shut their eyes when startled. "The more negative the stimuli, the harder people slam their eyes shut," Angelini tells WebMD. He and his colleagues used blasts of white noise to startle participants while they watched positive, moderate, and negative political ads. "When exposed to the negative ads, people did indeed slam their eyes shut harder," Angelini says. "It's the same response as if they encountered a wild animal."

Angelini says more research is needed to determine whether this flight response might make voters flee the political process altogether. "It's unclear who is being hurt by this," he says. "That's something campaigns need to think about."

Degrees of Negativity

It's important to note that negative ads vary widely in content and intensity, so they won't all have the same psychological impact. Angelini's team found the startle reflex was stronger during very negative ads as compared to moderate ones. And the study did not differentiate between types of negative feelings, such as disgust, fear, and anger.

These distinct emotions are likely to result in different behaviors. As we saw earlier, fear leads voters to pay more attention and seek both sides of the story. "Anger works very differently," Brader says, "and in ways much more like the positive emotions, in the sense of reinforcing what you were inclined to do in the beginning."

This suggests political campaigns can tailor negative ads to achieve specific goals. Want to make sure your supporters get out and vote? Ads that fuel anger may do the job. Want to sway uncommitted voters? Ads that tap into genuine fears may have the power to change minds.

With all the money and effort political campaigns put into advertising, do the ads have any lasting impact? Not really, according to Geer. "The current data suggests the ads have a shelf-life of three to four days," he says. Once the ads stop running, they are quickly forgotten.

Brader agrees that individual ads don't have a lasting impact, but says the effects can accumulate to shape the public's overall impression of a candidate. "If the ads were successful in painting a candidate as extreme, it could be polarizing," he tells WebMD. The ads could create lingering doubts that "carry over into the new president's term."

Show Sources


Nicholas A. Valentino, PhD, political psychologist and professor of government, University of Texas, Austin.

John G. Geer, PhD, professor of political science, Vanderbilt University; author, In Defense of Negativity.

Ted Brader, PhD, associate professor of political science, University of Michigan; author, Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work.

News release, Washington Post/ABC News.

New York Times, Oct. 15, 2008.

Journal of Advertising, Winter 2007.

James R. Angelini, PhD, assistant professor of communication, University of Delaware.

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