Psychology behind the political ads

What ads say, what ads mean and how the messages stick with us

“Pat Murphy will never fit in at the Millionaire’s Club, but he’s a perfect fit for Iowa,” says an ad for Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives 1st District Pat Murphy, seen here speaking to the Downtown Rotary at the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Cedar Rapids on Sept. 22. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG-TV9 TV9)
“Pat Murphy will never fit in at the Millionaire’s Club, but he’s a perfect fit for Iowa,” says an ad for Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives 1st District Pat Murphy, seen here speaking to the Downtown Rotary at the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Cedar Rapids on Sept. 22. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG-TV9 TV9)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Television these days is filled with drama, name-calling and emotional button-pushing.

And those are just the political ads.

The Gazette asked Iowa political scientists, communications experts and psychologists to analyze the tactics used in political ads that have been blistering the Eastern Iowa airwaves. Amid the heartfelt testimonials, mudslinging attacks and goofy spots with national actors are some new strategies for 2014.

“We break down ads looking at verbals, nonverbals and video production style,” explained Dianne Bystrom, director of Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. “Men and women running against each other have adapted styles that are very similar to one another.”

Finding commonality

American flags, tractors and cute kids often are seen early in a campaign season or when a candidate has a large lead, experts noted. These “positive” ads may emphasize commonality between a candidate and his or her voters.

Iowa Rep. Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives 1st District seat, took out the garbage and climbed into a slightly rusty Chevy pickup in commercial that started airing in September.

“Pat Murphy will never fit in at the Millionaire’s Club, but he’s a perfect fit for Iowa,” the Murphy-sponsored ad claims.

Another recent ad that uses this strategy is a TV commercial by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican running a tight race against U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley for U.S. Senate. Ernst sits at what looks like a kitchen table, looking directly at the camera and talking about her Iowa values.

“There’s no political substance, but it’s the idea she shares the same values with the voter,” said Chris Larimer, a University of Northern Iowa associate professor of political science.

Parties prioritize different values

Conservative candidates tend to play up the group mentality more than liberals, said Daryl Cameron, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa. He pointed to Ernst and other Republicans drawing attention to Braley’s gaffe of apparently criticizing veteran U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley for not having a law degree.

“Ernst is trying to push buttons by saying, ‘He (Braley) isn’t one of us, he’s betraying the group,’” Cameron said.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to emphasize fairness and distribution of resources over other values, he said.

When male and female political candidates face off, they talk about a different set of issues than in male-versus-male races, Bystrom said.

Bystrom, who has been studying mixed-gender elections for U.S. Senate that have occurred since 1990, said these races traditionally have focused more on education, Social Security and health care. An all-male race might include more discussion of war and crime.

The economy, she said, has become gender neutral.

Motherhood touted

This year, for the first time, female candidates are talking about motherhood, Bystrom said.

“With all the hundreds of ads I’ve studied, women don’t usually talk about being a mom,” she said.

Ernst’s mantra in ads over the past year has included that she’s a mother and a soldier. The third part has changed from “proven conservative” during the primary race to “independent leader” and simply “Iowa values” for the general election.

Staci Appel, a Democrat seeking Iowa’s 3rd District seat, goes further by showing her six children, ages five to 17, in her TV ads.

“I like her ads,” Bystrom said of Appel. But “a couple of younger women without kids thought people might say, ‘What will she do with all those kids when she goes to Washington, D. C.?’. It could backfire.”

Why negative ads work

Most of the political ads we’re seeing on TV these days are the negative sort, filled with unflattering photos, black-and-white video and menacing voices. You know, the ads we love to hate.

But research shows people tend to remember negative messages better than positive ones. Ads that make people feel fear cause them to seek more information and improve recall of related news, according to a study published in 2005 in the American Journal of Political Science.

Anger and disgust also can play a role in politics.

Faculty at Cornell University in New York reported randomly selected students who stood next to a bottle of hand sanitizer were more likely to endorse conservative attitudes on a survey than students who took the survey at the other end of the hall.

Reminders of contamination can trigger a biological fear of outsiders that once protected people from diseases carried by other tribes. But those feelings can have a short-term effect on decision making, David Pizarro, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell, told the American Psychological Association for an April 2012 article.

Some candidates are using this information.

Carl Paladino, a Republican who ran for governor of New York in 2010, actually embedded one of his campaign mailings with the scent of rotten garbage with the phrase “Something Stinks in Albany” and photos of Democrats in office. Campaigns also may use more subtle tactics, such as calling a rival “slimy,” or showing images of pollution or disease, Cameron said.

Dialogue through ads

People who watch a lot of political ads — viewers of “Dancing with the Stars” and “Shark Tank” come to mind — may see a dialogue unfold over the course of a campaign, Bystrom said.

Concerned Veterans for America, a national conservative group, started airing an ad in July that criticized Braley’s attendance at Veterans Affairs committee hearings. It wasn’t long before Braley’s campaign came back with ads defending his work for vets and bashing Ernst’s voting record in the Iowa Senate.

In the 1st District race, Murphy aired an ad in September that knocks his competitor, Republican Rod Blum, for his leadership of a Dubuque software company. Blum came back with a positive ad touting his own success creating jobs.

High volume

The sheer volume of ads also can nudge voters, Larimer said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch started out in August 2013 with an ad called “Smokey and the Branstad” in which he made a humorous jab at Gov. Terry Branstad’s State Patrol detail being pulled over twice for speeding.

Hatch stopped airing that ad and announced in late September of this year he would scale back TV ad buys.

“It’s a big interruption,” Larimer said. “That will make it difficult for the Hatch folks.”

If the negative ads are getting you down, take heart. As we get closer to the Nov. 4 election, Iowans should see the return of the positive ads, experts said.

And after Election Day, we’ll get back to the usual commercials using psychology to sell us cars, prescription drugs and junk food.

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