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Decoding Political Ads: The Stories Behind The Scare-Tactics

A young girl stands alone in a field, counting as she plucks the petals off a daisy. The camera zooms in on her angelic face, and her soft voice is overpowered by a booming male bass, counting down from ten. The disembodied voice reaches zero just as one of her fathomless pupils consumes the screen. Out of the blackness, images of nuclear Armageddon explode.

This infamous scene was part of a political advertisement (called "Daisy") so shocking that it was aired only once by President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign before being pulled.

Universally used by every party and every candidate, the political advertisement is one of American politics' most versatile staples.

Many older Americans will remember Daisy's startling imagery and the profound impact the commercial had on the 1964 U.S. presidential race.

Fueled by polarizing campaign issues, and changes in finance laws making it easier for third-party organizations (industry groups, labor groups, Super PACs, etc.) to receive funding, the 2012 presidential race is taking full advantage of this go-to election tool. The past few months alone have spawned dozens of 30-second spots designed to capture voters' attention and sway their opinions.

Baby boomers and seniors in politician's crosshairs

Consistent voting records and a sizeable swing state presence makes older Americans prime targets for political ads.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that, in the past three presidential races, around 68 percent of people aged 65 and older voted—the highest turnout rate of any age group.

That statistic, and the fact that the upcoming election will determine the future course of government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, makes the senior demographic irresistible to President Obama's and Governor Romney's campaigns, according to Jamie McKown, Ph.D., Wiggins Chair of Government and Policy for the College of the Atlantic.

"Candidates target older Americans living on fixed incomes and relying on government-provided benefits," he says, "They try to make these voters feel like they're going to lose those things—both sides have been doing it for a long time."

Just as Daisy played on people's fear of nuclear war in Vietnam, many of today's political advertisements play on senior's fears of financial and physical ruin—a tactic which has been dubbed, "Mediscare."

In every ad, a story

Even in grainy black and white, Daisy delivered a potent punch to the campaign of Barry Goldwater, Johnson's opponent in 1964.

Yet, it presented no facts, cited no statistics, and did nothing to appeal to the rational side of human thinking.

McKown says that a well-crafted political ad doesn't waste time trying to inspire logic in its viewers. "Humans are not rational decision-makers, we're storytellers. We make choices based on stories," he points out.

The goal may be to tell the life story of a candidate, to make the public aware of a particular issue, to define an opponent, or to fire up an existing voter base, but a good ad always addresses these themes with a gripping narrative.

Compelling images, emotional music, and a fine-tuned script strive to tug at the heartstrings or embolden the spirit of a target audience. The creators of political propaganda don't want voters to think—they want them to feel.

Impact on voters

Does it work? Can a thirty second commercial change a voter's mind?

Research shows that ads can sometimes influence a so-called "soft supporter"—someone who doesn't have a clear reason for supporting a particular candidate.

They can also turn off voters by making people so sick and tired of politics that they forgo the polls altogether.

Experts predict that as many as 90 million Americans who are eligible to vote will drive right on by their local polling place on November 6th, without stopping in to submit their ballot.

A recent poll conducted by Suffolk University and USA TODAY sheds some light on who these people are and why they may choose to forfeit their right to choose the next president. Empty promises and corrupt practices topped the list of reasons that study participants cited when asked why they don't pay attention to politics.

But McKown says that the current presidential race isn't substantially more negative than past competitions. "It would be a mistake to think that political discussion is more corrupted than it has been," he says, "It's not as if there was this golden period where people engaged in smart discourse."

Translation tips

How can you avoid being influenced by a persuasive ad?

The simplest way: "Don't watch them," says Joan McLean, Ph.D., a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University.

But, because politics has permeated practically every media outlet, evasion may not always be an option.

There are things you can do to prevent yourself from being duped by a well-placed political ad:

  1. Embrace your inner skeptic-Whether it was created by a candidate's campaign or a third-party organization, don't take what you see and hear in a political ad at face value. Political speech is not subject to the same false advertising regulations as consumer products are, which means that the creators of political ads have much more leeway when making claims about a candidate or issue.
  2. Do your homework-McKown and McLean both stress the importance of doing your own research to determine where each candidate stands on the issues. Keep in mind that candidate websites and news outlets (even those who claim to be impartial) typically have a certain political bent. If you want unbiased information, try visiting fact-checking websites, such as: politifact.com, or factcheck.org.
  3. Talk about it-Find a friend or family member that you trust and can talk politics with. Whether you agree on the issues or not, engaging in a thoughtful, non-confrontational discussion can give you a fresh perspective on the election.

It's important to not allow frustration or confusion to turn you off to voting all together. Finding simplified, non-biased information isn't easy, but it can be done.

"I don't know how we got to the point where we feel we should be educated by thirty second ads alone," McKown says, "They're going to present things the way they want to present them—it doesn't mean that democracy is broken or the candidates are bad. Just do your own research."

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