Tired of political ads? The positive ones with unfurling flags and smiling children? The negative ones with grainy images of opponents? Well, gird yourself. Campaigns will spend upward of $3 billion on broadcast television ads for the 2012 presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections, a record-breaking amount, according to Moody’s Investment Services.

With this much money on the line, you might assume that media consultants know what works and what doesn’t. However, they rarely pay attention to burgeoning research by psychologists and other social scientists who are exploring whether the images and emotions evoked by campaign ads actually sway voters, researchers say.

“Consultants obviously have good intuition, especially if they are experienced, and some of them even pay attention to the psychology and political science literature, but I think they are the minority,” says Ted Brader, PhD, a political psychology professor at the University of Michigan.

But increasingly, smart campaign consultants are reading studies and even collaborating with researchers, says Donald Green, PhD, a political science professor at Columbia University who collaborated with the 2006 Rick Perry gubernatorial campaign in Texas to conduct groundbreaking studies of political advertising. “Both sides are looking for an edge, and more rigorous science leads to more efficient campaigning,” he says.

In the meantime, psychologists and political scientists are studying campaign ads and coming up with surprising results — finding, for example, that negative ads might create more thoughtful voters than positive ones, and that reminders of children or contagion can push otherwise liberal voters to endorse more conservative views.

“It’s funny that a bunch of liberal academics have given conservative campaigns so much to work with,” says David Pizarro, PhD, a political psychology professor at Cornell. “But they give us good ideas, too — conservatives have been much better at making use of emotional tools in their campaigns than liberals.”

When do ads matter?

Before 2005, no major campaign had made use of science’s best tool: randomized controlled trials. That changed, however, when Republican consultant Dave Carney read “Get Out the Vote,” a 2004 book by Green that detailed his research showing TV ads don’t get nearly as many people to the polls as goodold door knocking does. Carney, who was running Perry’s gubernatorial re-election campaign, called Green and invited him to test his theories on a major campaign. “The next thing you know, there we were in Austin,” recalls Green. Carney offered Green and his colleagues the opportunity to use their campaign budget to conduct a series of unprecedented experiments — randomly assigning television and radio ads to different markets to see what worked, for instance. The only catch: The researchers couldn’t publish their results until after the election.

The Perry campaign expected a short, intense primary battle, and Carney wanted to pre-emptively deploy $2 million in positive advertising to shore up Perry’s base. To investigate advertising’s effect, Green and his colleagues randomly assigned a “get to know the candidate” radio and TV spot to 18 media markets. Before, during and after the advertisement’s twoweek run, pollsters called voters in each of those media markets and asked them, if the election were held that day, whether they’d vote for Perry or Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Perry’s likely primary opponent.

The researchers were surprised by the results, and the campaign consultants were floored: The ads bumped Perry’s numbers by a muscular 5 percentage points, but the effect only lasted a week, according to a study published in the February issue of the American Political Science Review.

Defenders of campaign advertising point out that the test only considered a positive ad with a short run in an as-yet-uncontested primary. More typically, political ads run continuously until Election Day. In addition, campaigns tend to go negative as an election nears, and campaigns attempt to outshout the others by buying more airtime, says Michael Franz, PhD, a political science professor at Bowdoin College. “You want your message to be seen more often than competitors’,” he says. “It becomes an arms race, and it can have a significant effect on the final results.”

A study by Franz, published in American Politics Research in March 2010, bears this out. By using the “natural experiment” of ads that spilled over into non-battlefield states, where people wouldn’t have also received a barrage of campaign mail and canvassers, Franz and his colleagues isolated the effects of television advertising. They found that a 1,000-ad advantage in any given market over the course of an election increased a candidate’s vote share by about 0.5 percentage points.

“It’s a small effect, but it could make a difference in a close election,” Franz says.

The positive side of negative ads

With such small margins, it’s important to make campaign ads that people pay attention to — and negative ads seem to do this the best, Brader says. In one study, published in 2005 in the American Journal of Political Science, Brader and his colleagues found that campaign ads that make people feel fear — with ominous music and grainy images of drugs and violence — caused people to seek more information and remember more facts from a newscast aired afterward. Ads that sparked feelings of enthusiasm in viewers — with upbeat music and images of flags and smiling children — reduced viewers’ interest in learning more about candidates’ positions, he found.

“Fear ads heighten attentiveness and weaken people’s reliance on partisan habits, while enthusiasm ads reassure you, and reaffirm the choice you’ve already made,” Brader says.

Given these effects, a smart campaign would use positive ads when they are ahead and reserve negative ads for when they are behind. That’s exactly what most campaigns do, according to a study of Senate campaign ads by Washington State University political science professor Travis Ridout, PhD, published in the March issue of Political Psychology. “If you’re behind, you need to shake things up, and that means making people anxious about the other candidate so they will reconsider their voting decision,” he says. “If you’re ahead and want to cement peoples’ support, appeal to the emotions of pride and enthusiasm.”

In the past, campaigns have been wary of deploying negative ads for fear of backlash, says Ridout. However, that may be changing as campaign operatives see evidence that negative ads can break through party affiliations and also sway independent voters. A case in point: Mitt Romney’s February landslide in the Florida Republican primary came on the heels of the “most negative advertising campaign in history,” according to the nonprofit Campaign Media Analysis Group. The week before the primary, 99 percent of Romney’s ads were negative, while 95 percent of Newt Gingrich’s ads were negative.

“I wish candidates wouldn’t use them, but attack ads work perfectly,” says Joel Weinberger, PhD, a psychology professor at Adelphi University. “Democrats know it, Republicans know it, and it’s going to get ugly this year.”

Subtle tactics

Even more concerning than blatantly negative advertising, however, is the potential use of subliminal messages in campaign ads, says Weinberger. No campaign has admitted to intentionally using subliminal messages, but during the 2000 presidential election, the Bush campaign aired an ad where the word “RATS” flashed onscreen for a fraction of a second. The consultant who made the ad, Alex Castellanos, admitted to placing “RATS” intentionally as “a visual drumbeat designed to make you look at the word bureaucrats,” though he stopped short of saying it was meant to unconsciously sway voters.

Regardless of the campaign’s intention, quickly flashing “RATS” can unconsciously cause people to view a candidate more negatively, according to a study by Weinberger and Drew Westen, PhD, published in 2008 in Political Psychology. In the study, the researchers subliminally presented 91 participants one of four subliminal stimuli: RATS, STAR, ARAB or XXXX. They then showed a picture of a fictional political candidate and asked participants to rate whether he looked competent and likable. The researchers found that the subliminal “RATS” message depressed participants’ ratings of the candidate, while the other words did not.

No other examples of subliminal messages in campaign ads have come to light since, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being used, Weinberger says. “We haven’t seen anything as blatant as the “RATS” ad, but, of course, you aren’t supposed to catch them.”

More obvious disgust triggers — such as environmentalists’ use of pictures of the Pacific Ocean garbage patch in fundraising campaigns — can also have a powerful effect on people’s political views, says Pizarro. But left-leaning groups should take note: Images and even extremely subtle reminders of disease and contamination seem to push people toward the conservative end of the spectrum, according to research by Pizarro and others.

In one study, in press in Psychological Science, Pizarro and his colleagues asked randomly selected students to fill out a survey of their political attitudes. They found that the students endorsed more conservative attitudes when they stood next to a bottle of handsanitizer or near a sign reminding them to wash their hands. In another study, published last year in Emotion, students who filled out a survey in room with a noxious odor reported feeling less warmth toward gays than students in a normal-smelling room. That may sound like an unlikely result, but past research suggests that subtle reminders of contamination can trigger a knee-jerk fear of outsiders — a xenophobic disgust reaction that may have once served to protect people from diseases carried by other tribes. Today, however, it has little use, Pizarro says. “Disgust should motivate you to not touch really dirty things, but I don’t think it should motivate social, political or moral judgments,” he says.

Thinking of children can also make people lean conservative, according to research by Richard Eibach, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Eibach found that simply reminding parents of their children triggered harsher evaluations of people engaged in distasteful but essentially harmless behavior, such as a dwarf who participates in dwarf-tossing events. Results from the 2006 General Social Survey provide dovetailing results, with parents judging premarital sex as more morally wrong than nonparents. “When you are a nonparent, you can afford to have a fairly lax attitude toward morality so long as someone isn’t harming someone else,” he says. “When you’re a parent — or reminded of being a parent — you can’t afford to ignore rude or uncivil or unpleasant behavior, because it can potentially corrupt your children’s character development.”

Given these findings, liberal or libertarian candidates might want to avoid the tropes of smiling children or rotting garbage in their campaign ads. However, images in ads probably matter most when we don’t know much about a candidate to begin with, Brader says.

“If it’s a new candidate … it might help build positive feelings to have the candidate in an ad, smiling, holding happy children, standing with the American flag,” he says. “But once we know a candidate, our prior convictions, especially partisanship, are going to take over.”


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