In campaign ads, emotion trumps fact and guns buy votes

What I learned from watching political ads on YouTube two weeks before the midterms.


As a 30-year-old who hasn’t owned a TV in her adult life, I’m of a generation that consumes news actively — instead of sitting in front of the tube, watching whatever comes my way, I seek out news I’m interested in from online sources I like. My dad’s strategy? Definitely the former. 

Statistically, my 65-year-old, TV-watching father is also more likely to vote in the upcoming midterm elections than people of my generation, which is partially why campaign ad spending is set to break a record $1 billion for the election season. “Television is still, in most campaigns, the largest single expenditure you'll see,” said Neil Oxman, a media consultant who’s been making campaign ads for 30 years. “Older people (who are more likely to vote) … sit in front of the television. They don't flick away from commercials.”

Plus, Oxman explained on WHYY’s Fresh Air, the stakes are higher: Forty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have 200 or so hotly contested Congressional races. Today, with redistricting and increased polarization, fewer than 50 out of 435 districts are legitimately competitive. “You have 300 congressional districts where not a penny is spent (on campaign ads),” Oxman said. “And you'll have 50 where 5 or $10 million or more is spent.”

So where’s all the money going? With two weeks to go before elections, I spent a morning glued to YouTube, catching up on political ads from around the West. Here’s what I found:

  • Emotion is more important than fact. As Republican media consultant Fred Davis advises in Campaigns and Elections magazine, “…the use of a base emotional appeal — love, fear, humor, anger — will be more effective than a factual appeal.” That, he goes on, is “not cheating. It’s simply marketing to people in a way that’s most effective.” 

The Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based nonpartisan group that advocates for transparency in government, notes that such scare tactics are on the rise — and go both ways. Republican ads are more likely to show an intruder breaking into a residence, appealing to voters’ fears that Democrats who want to take their guns away are putting American families at risk. Democrats are more likely to play off fears that Republicans’ poor environmental record could harm children’s health, like this air pollution spot attacking Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who’s running for U.S. Senate:

  • But fear-mongering can be taken too far. Take Republican House candidate Wendy Rogers of Arizona, who used video of the apparent beheading of American journalist James Foley to attack Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., for being soft on terrorism — despite the fact that Foley’s family has asked the public not to watch or share the video. 
  • Nonetheless, voters like guns. As NPR notes, “This year, lots of spots are hitting the air featuring candidates with firearms shooting at things: TVs, drones, thick copies of the Affordable Care Act.” Guns seem especially popular among Western candidates, like former congressional hopeful Matt Rosendale (he lost in the primaries), whose video of shooting a “federal government” drone out of the sky got 583,700 YouTube views. 

  • Third-party spending isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. With fewer contested races nationwide, those that are competitive quickly become matters of national interest, with unprecedented amounts of outside money pouring in. Yet while it might seem like a boon to have big spenders like Charles and David Koch or Tom Steyer backing your campaign, it can also backfire: Candidates who receive help from out-of-state billionaires are also increasingly attacked by their competitors for doing so. And researchers have found that getting pegged as cozy with the one percent can be a label that sticks.

As I scrolled through the ads — many bizarre and over-the-top — I wondered how many other people my age have seen any of them. As the New York Times’ Derek Willis reported today, “most non-cable broadcast advertisements in House races air on just 11 programs, among them the local news, ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ ‘Jeopardy!’ and ‘The Today Show.’” In other words: the shows my dad watches.

Political advertisers are beginning to target more online audiences, but as Willis notes, online users aren’t very likely to click through to watch ad spots. Plus, as this “Say Yes to Bob Beauprez” ad — a spoof of the TLC reality wedding show “Say Yes to the Dress” —  painfully shows, many campaigns are still out of touch with younger voters. 

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2. Homepage image credit Flickr user Daniel Go. 

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