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