In what will be one of the most hotly contested and closely watched non-presidential election cycles in United States history, the 2018 midterms are sure to make the presence of political advertising inescapable. In addition to the divisive political climate currently lingering over the country, the fact that many elected officials will inherit the responsibility of redrawing congressional district maps for 2020, and in turn help shape America’s political landscape for years to come, points to voters being barraged with political ads like never before.
While it may seem like a daunting task to accurately decipher the seemingly endless number of election ads you’ll be exposed to between now and November 6th, gaining insights into the psychology of political campaign advertising can assuredly help you navigate through the ambiguous storm. That’s to say that by understanding how campaigns not only use traditional advertising techniques but also more cutthroat messaging tactics and subtler emotional ploys to persuade citizens to their side, you’ll be able to make sense of candidates’ conflicting messages, spot nefarious ‘post-truth’ deception and arrive at sound voting decisions that are based on logic, reason and truth.
The Advertising Playbook of Political Campaigns:
Before we begin dissecting the psychological mechanisms politicians use in campaign advertisements, it’ll be helpful to shine light on the various types of ads that are deployed throughout an election cycle. Of course, it’s important to point out that while individual candidates may rely upon dissimilar advertising tactics in the months leading up to the big day, they unanimously share the goals of creating a favorable political image, distinguishes themselves from their opponents and making sure their constituents get to the polls.
To achieve these aims, candidates will allocate substantial resources for creating perspective changing political ads, that show why they are or their opponent isn’t up for the job, before distributing them through various television, radio, print and digital channels. Here, we’ve done our best to identify the most effective campaign ad strategies, while also illuminating the latest trends in political campaign advertising, with the help of video ad examples coming primarily from various 2018 elections:
Positive vs Negative Ads:
While there are a variety of different communication platforms politicians advertise on, every single ad can unfailingly be categorized as either positive or negative, and there’s good reasons why candidates use both at various stages of a campaign. First, because positive ads maintain sole focus on the paying candidate and the key issues that he or she wants to address, they can be especially useful for lesser-known candidates trying to define themselves early in the election process. Where as incumbents seeking reelection are generally known throughout the districts and states they represent, individuals seeking office for the first time typically don’t posses this same luxury and are forced to legitimacy their candidacy before they can be considered as true contenders. Fortunately, by effectively utilizing positive ads to acquaint themselves with voters, and to grow a committed base of donors and volunteers, they can gain the recognition and respect needed to claw their way into the race.
In addition to acting as a prefatory tool for newcomer challengers, there are other important times during a campaign when candidates rely upon positive ads. Political strategists tell us, for example, that incumbents often use them to countering negative attacks, from either their opponents or third party actors, and candidates who find themselves ahead in the polls leading up to the election will use them as a tool to incite enthusiasm and reassure perspective voters that they’re making the right decision. In the video below, you’ll see a recently released positive ad for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who’s running in the great state of Texas:
Where as positive ads focus on the best qualities and attributes of the paying candidate, negative ads are used by campaigns to cast doubt and throw shade at their opponents. Generally speaking, there are two types of ads used in this style of campaign advertising- attack and contrast- and both zone in on the negative aspects of the opposition while spotlighting the risks that come from associating with their political ideology.
While contrast ads are believed to be the safer of the two ad types, because they plainly distinguish a candidate’s record and beliefs from those of their competitor, purely negative attack ads that exploit people’s fears and bluntly aim to lower the impression of opposing candidates come with greater potential to influence voters but also increased exposure to advertising failure. In the video below, you’ll see a negative ad recently released by U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who just so happens to be running for reelection against the previously mentioned Beto O’Rourke:
Introduction & Biography Ads:
To build upon the idea that candidates oftentimes use positive ads at the start of a campaign to generate a favorable first impression with their constituents, we can look at two more specific types of advertisements, introduction and biography ads, that are deployed to achieve this goal. While bio ads supply information about an individual’s background, qualifications and reasons for running, and intro ads are used to cement his or her name in the mind of voters, both ad types maintain sole focus on the candidate without getting into too much detail about their political views or policy ideas.
It’s should be fairly easy to understand why these ads are especially important for first time candidates, who need to establish name recognition, and focus on leadership qualities and traits that attract voters such as reliability, likability, intelligence, morality and trust-worthiness. The following biography ad for a 2018 U.S. House of Representatives candidate named M.J. Hegar has recently gained nationwide attention for it’s unique design and highly personable feel:
Because many citizens cast their votes based solely upon party affiliation or how one candidate views a particular issue, many candidates will utilize the help of endorsement ads, which may be produced internally and feature citizen testimonials or by third party organizations not directly associated with the campaign, that either link them to a foundational set of political beliefs and values or viciously attack the opposing party’s candidate. Because many of these ads are funded by political action committees (PACs) and super PACs that act independently of candidates, it’s vital to understand how these entities operate in secrecy and oftentimes cloak the interests of their most generous donors in truth-bending endorsement ads that appear to support or reject a greater movement or cause.
Due to the fact that federal law prohibits individual donors from contributing more than $2,000 to a single campaign but allows PACs to contribute up to $5,000 per candidate and doesn’t cap how much super PACs, who aren’t supposed to ‘coordinate’ with candidates, can raise, much deception is injected into nationwide elections through endorsement ads. As a voter, you should remain wary of these ads and pay close attention to the legal disclaimers that state who’s responsible for the advertisements so you’re able to accurately determine who’s interests are really being kept in mind. One super PAC that consistently makes headlines for its campaign advertising is the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund, which dedicates itself to helping Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives get elected, and you can see how third party actors play a most influential role in shaping the images of candidates by watching one of their most recent ads:
The Growing Role of Digital Ads:
If the 2016 presidential election taught us anything about the ever changing dynamics of political advertisement, it’s that the internet has become one of the most important platforms for distributing political messages. Considering the fact that the data tracking firm Borrell Associates reports that $1.8 billion will be allocated for digital ads in 2018, representing a nearly 800% increase from the $159 million that was spent during the 2012 election, it’s safe to say that this trend isn’t reversing anytime soon. Unfortunately, with no laws requiring the disclosure of who pays for digital ads, what other issues-based advertisements the buyer promotes or how they’re demographically targeting groups of people, political operatives can infringe on citizens’ privacy rights and manipulate voters with deception through internet-based advertising.
This troubling truth first came to light after it was discovered that Facebook sold $100,000 in ads to fake accounts associated with a Russian troll farm during the 2016 election, which subsequently used the space to sow discord amongst millions of Americans, with propaganda and disinformation techniques, while also working to improve then candidate Donald Trump’s chances of winning the election. While tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have made some important changes related to user privacy and the advertisement of ‘fake news’, voters should nonetheless remain skeptical about the political ads they see online as it’s all but certain that bad actors are doing everything in their power to find and exploit whatever loopholes remain vulnerable.
The Psychology of Political Campaign Advertising:
Now that we have an understanding of the advertising playbook used by politicians during election season, we can turn our attention to examining the psychology behind their messaging. Although most voters remain unaware of the psychological mechanisms and behavior promoting strategies used in campaign advertisements, it’s certain that all campaign ad designers and marketers know that a good political ad will achieve at least one of the following five goals:
Activating Primal Drives:
Due to the fact that humans, like all living organisms, instinctually desire safety and enhanced preservation above almost all else, so we’re able to achieve the ultimate evolutionary goal of passing our genes into future generations, many campaigns strive to activate voters’ primordial drives with hopes of winning them to their side. This truth has perhaps never been clearer to see than it is today as the legislative arena has become filled with politicians promising safer streets, better benefits, bigger paychecks and border walls.
Psychologically speaking, whenever political ads aim to stoke citizens’ fears about illegal immigration and gang violence or raise their hopes about how great life will be with a booming economy and bigger tax breaks, it’s important to realize that the goal is at least partly to provoke you into making voting decisions with your inborn Darwinian instincts. We can see a clear example of this strategy in the ad below, which blames illegal immigrants for stealing millions of dollars from hardworking Minnesotans trough loopholes in welfare programs, released early this year by one time gubernational candidate Tim Pawlenty:
Triggering Emotional Responses:
While not all political ads are designed to activate voters primal instincts, each and everyone of them unfailingly is designed to trigger emotional responses in constituents. As we have seen in the various videos we’ve watched up until this point in the article, political ads use the power of emotions to fill supports with pride, bring enthusiasm to a campaign, raise doubts about a candidate and even incite feelings of animosity towards the opposition. Although it can be easy to assume that negative ads do more harm to a campaign than good, there’s a variety of psychologically-based reasons why this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Numerous studies have shown, for example, that negative advertising is a powerful tool for influencing preferences, increasing voter turnout and weakening people’s reliance on habitual partisan behaviors. Additionally, attack and fear inducing ads can be especially powerful because the innate negativity bias of the human brain makes objectionable information stick in the mind more so than what’s gathered from positive messaging. In the following negative ad, produced by the liberal Senate Majority PAC, you’ll see how the democratic party is going after Missouri’s republican candidate for U.S. Senate Josh Hawley:
Persuading with Manipulation & Deception:
For anyone who watches the nightly news on a regular basis, regardless of if it’s on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, it’s should be fairly easy to recognize how anchors, pundits and politicians alike use ‘spin’ to manipulate and deceive viewers. In similar fashion, political campaigns oftentimes design election ads with misleading information, half-truths and flat out lies so they’re able exploit the thinking of perspective voters. Psychologically speaking, this strategy of persuasion becomes easier to understand when considering how political messaging targets the naturally vulnerable mental blindspots of citizens and creates cognitive distortions or faulty patterns of thought.
Many ads, for example, use deceptive tactics to foster uncertainty and prompt the distressing mental state of dissonance, during which one holds two or more contradictory beliefs, especially in citizens who are either undecided or leaning towards the other-side. Additionally, although all political issues contain a high degree of complexity, plenty of campaigns prey on the mind’s craving for consistency and create ads that stimulate dichotomous, or black-and-white, thinking by boiling things down into simple either/or choices with the help of techniques such as labeling, overgeneralizing and jumping to conclusions. In this recently released attack ad produced by the GOP, you can see how political parties promote an us-versus-them mentality by oversimplifying multifaceted issues and overgeneralizing scores of people as being the exact same:
Influencing with Subliminal Messages & Mind Control:
If you look beyond the surface level psychological strategies of provoking primal instincts, triggering emotional responses and persuading with manipulation and deception, political advertisers use a variety of subtler techniques that influence citizens’ thinking and voting behaviors. Subliminal messages, for example, have widely been used in the world of advertising for decades, and political campaigns meticulously select colors, wordage, music and images to cohesively create ads that have a particular feel and portray candidates in a way of their choosing.
Additionally, by endlessly barraging voters with the same ads throughout an election season, campaigns can subconsciously ingrain messages in voters minds. While this process is known as repetition in the world of psychology, political operative refer to it simply as ‘staying on message’. In the following video, which examines ads from the 2016 presidential election, you’ll see how campaign advertisers also use a cinematic technique known as montage to stoke viewers imagination through the psychological process of mind control:
Assessing Political Messaging to Reach Logical Voting Decisions:
If you are like most people, the unescapable barrage of political advertisements coming between now and the November 6th elections will at some point wear you down to the point of exasperated exhaustion. While the endless exposure to candidates’ messages can assuredly be both draining and frustrating, it’s important to keep in mind that these ads, like all advertisements, are designed to influence you psychologically and to avoid being manipulated or deceived you’ll have to commit to consciously viewing them with objectivity and analytical skepticism.
Besides understanding how the various psychological techniques we’ve explored in this article play a role in campaign advertising, non-partisan watchdog group websites such as FactCheck.org, politifact.com and OpenSecrets.org can provide you with invaluable information about particular ads, elections and candidates. Additionally, by coming to realize that part of your civic responsibility as a citizen of the free world is to consider the motives, strategies and sources of the information you intake, you can set yourself up to make sense of the bombardment of midterm advertisements before confidently casting your votes knowing you haven’t been exploited. Now, to end this article, we’ll leave you with six ad assessing questions that can help you evaluate political messages with understanding of the psychology of political campaign advertising:
- What is the impression the ad gives of the candidate(s)? How was this impression created?
- Does the ad provide any information? Or does it only provide generalities and slogans?
- What are the prominent/repeated words used in the ad? Why were they chosen?
- What feelings are evoked by the images and sounds in the ad? And why might you feel that way?
- Who paid for the ad? Was it the campaign itself, a politically affiliated PAC, or a special interest group PAC? Why might these groups want this candidate elected?
- If a political ad or article is encountered online, is it from a reputable source?