By the People: Election 2004 . Savvy Voter | PBS

Savvy Voter - Dissect an Ad

The 30-second TV spot now dominates American politics. How are candidates using political ads to present their messages? What emotional buttons are they trying to push to influence you?

Learn what it takes to dissect an ad and be a savvy voter.

Dissect an Ad

Both pundits and citizens spend a lot of time making fun of political commercials. They're short, simple-minded, and as election day approaches, they become more obnoxiously frequent. There seems good reason to ridicule the idea that they affect how people vote and how they think about government and politicians.

But a large body of studies carried out in the last 15 years shows quite clearly that political commercials have major effects on people. In Presidential elections, television commercials consume most of the money spent by candidates in their attempts to get elected. This is also true of state-level elections.

The bottom line, then, is that it's important for citizens to look carefully at political ads. Certainly the truth or falsity and, regardless of "truth," the deceptiveness of ad content is important to examine. Many newspapers and television analysis programs provide the citizen a good opportunity to learn more about the quality of the verbal content of political commercials. Although a majority of Americans are not aware of this, government closely controls the truth value of national product advertising on television. But because of the principle of free speech, a principle protected by the U.S. Constitution, there is no control whatsoever on the content of a political commercial. Basically, a politician can say anything she or he wishes in a political ad. The only "control" over content in a political ad is media and public response to that content.

But ads communicate more than their verbal content. Like any persuasive message developed by a professional communicator, every aspect of their few-seconds duration is carefully designed to influence. Aspects of ads beyond their verbal content are called structural features.

This guide describes ten of the structural features that political ads use most commonly. Recognizing a persuasive tool for what it is, helps people understand the true impact of ads on themselves and others. Regardless of what verbal content an ad uses, it will employ one or many of these persuasive tools. Recognizing them and figuring out what their intended meaning is can provide important new insight into a political ad.

Candidate mythologies
When people think about a political office-holder like the President, Vice President, Governor, or Senator, they often, unbeknownst to themselves, attribute mythological features to that person. Common mythologies about the U.S. President represent him as:

  1. War hero
  2. Man of the people
  3. Father
  4. Savior
  5. Friend

These perceptions are "myths" in that they carry a lot of cultural baggage with them, but they are never true features of a president. They're used, however, to create emotion in viewers. If that face up on the screen asking for your vote is your "friend," you feel differently about him. If he's a "hero", he may make you feel proud or safe. If he's your "father," you may feel you can trust him.

Myths like these are generally not spoken, but represented in images. A candidate shown with people trying to touch him, shake his hand, or clapping for him, is being represented as a hero. Shown with his family, he's obviously a father, but he's also a father when shown kissing babies or supporting laws that aid children. Probably the most common spoken myth is "friend." "Friend of the people," "the working man's friend," are popular ad phrases. Clasping a voter around the shoulders or a warm hand-shake visually represents "friend."

Background locations
Where the candidate is when he is shown, or where the opponent is shown to be in an attack ad, is critically important to what is being communicated. Kennedy was shown walking along the beach. Perot was almost always in a paneled den or office. Clinton was most frequently surrounded by people. Each of the backgrounds is used to communicate a variety of things about the candidate.

Props are objects shown in the scenes. The most common prop is the American flag. Desks are important props. Headlines in newspapers are props used to verify statistical and factual claims ("If the newspaper said it, it must be true.") A podium is a prop and sometimes other people can serve as props. Once, a U.S. Senate candidate in Wisconsin even used a cardboard standup of Elvis as a prop.

Emotion-communicating faces
While any scene, any piece of music, any statement can induce emotion, the most common emotional device is the human face: the fear and anger in the face of teen druggie, the admiration and enthusiasm in crowd faces, babies' faces crying, fierce, uncaring expressions on the faces of opponents. All of these faces and their expressions are carefully planted in ads. A most common approach is to take the face of an opponent at its most unattractive and show that face as background for words written on the screen to indicate what awful things he has done. Faces are probably a candidate's most direct conduit to creating feelings in viewers.

Every ad, political or otherwise, has at its center an appeal. This is the main message of the ad and it is designed to speak to a viewer's emotions: insurance ads appeal to fears of disasters; cosmetics ads appeal to personal ego; many high-ticket products appeal to greed. Political ads are no different. Ads for candidates can appeal to positive feelings such as patriotism or pride but they can also elicit fears, especially if they are attack ads. These fears include things like war, crime, job loss or poor education. They may even imply that their opponent is untrustworthy or that he will take health benefits away from your parents or even that he will lead the country into war. Consultants are always looking for "hot button" issues -- issues that will be effective with a large percentage of voters. Once found, they will include these issues in the major appeal of the ad and sometimes in several minor appeals as well.

Music and background sounds
Almost all political ads use music. It's usually orchestral, stately, designed to sound inspiring to a broad spectrum of listeners. Volume of music is very important. A common approach is have a crescendo of sound at the end of an ad. Background music is borrowed from horror movies when the ad attacks an opponent. Music is often fiercely patriotic-sounding.

Background noises are important and seldom consciously noticed by viewers. Sirens, traffic noise, drumbeats are commonly employed. A good way to pick up use of music and background sounds, of course, is to look away from the screen during the ad. You'll find a lot going on there that you'd otherwise be unlikely to notice.

Film editing and camera use
Slow-motion is commonly used to increase the salience of an image. Extreme close-ups increase our perceptions of importance. They're also used to emphasize emotion, evil, and truthfulness. Often the camera comes in closer to the candidate as he begins his pledge to us voters--whatever that pledge may be. Jump-cuts occur when scenes are edited together and the central figure moves suddenly from one location to another. Shooting from above the candidate when he's greeting a crowd provides an impression of warmth and bonding. Black and white pictures usually mean the topic is serious and, most likely, negative.

What a candidate is wearing is carefully chosen to show the viewer something "important" about him. An expensive suit shows power, taste, authority. Shirt sleeves show hard work and empathy with ordinary people. Jacket over the shoulder shows ease, warmth, confidence. A loosened tie usually indicates the same characteristics.

Depicted Actions
What the candidate is doing in a support ad and what the opponent is doing in an attack ad are important. Getting off a plane shows characteristics like international expertise and concern, familiarity and caring about the whole country, or just plain old power. Interacting with the family shows caring. Holding hands with a spouse does the same. Signing papers shows ability to get important things done. Greeting ordinary people shows popularity and caring. Speaking from a podium emphasizes power and good ideas.

In the opponent, the activity is sometimes representing as "silly" or weak. A good example is the 1988 ad which featured Dukakis's helmeted head popping out of the top of an army tank. The opponent is sometimes shown with an incriminating "other." Candidates are usually doing things in color. Opponents are usually doing things in black and white.

Supers and Code Words
Supers are words printed in large letters on the screen. They appear over a background that is supposed to exemplify whatever is being said by the super. A super says, "Pay attention to this factoid or claim." It is often a phrase that communicates outrage at something the opponent has said or done such as, "RAISED TAXES THREE TIMES IN THREE YEARS." A super can also emphasize the larger appeal being made in the ad such as: "WRONG FOR YESTERDAY. WRONG FOR TOMORROW." Supers can use code words, which are words that sound simple but carry significant unconscious meaning for viewers. For example, when the word "values" is used in ads, it makes the candidate sound upright and moral, but often the exact values represented by the candidate are not made clear. The implication of the ad is that the candidate featured has values, but his or her opponent does not. Many argue that "crime" and "welfare" are code words that encourage viewers to look at these issues through a racial lens. Even a seemingly innocuous word like "yesterday" can be a code word if the meaning is implied to be that someone or something is too old and no longer relevant, rather than meaning it just occurred in the past.

Learn More
Created by the esteemed Annenberg Public Policy Center, this site evaluates political ads and statements and calls politicians to task when they bend the truth.
P.O.V.: Dissect an Ad (
Originally created in 1996, this site is still a great resource for learning more about the critical viewing of political advertisements.

............................................................................................................................... Esther Thorson, Graduate Dean of Journalism at the University of Missouri, has authored many studies on how people process product and political advertising.