A Viewer’s Guide: How to Watch Campaign Ads
We also consulted "UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation," a 2007 book by Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Based on this information, here is our viewer's guide to what you should consider while viewing campaign ads.
- Instead of concentrating on what's being said in a commercial, think about what may be missing. In a flier sent to your home, be wary when you see ellipses. That's an indication the campaign is using only part of a quote from whatever source it is citing. They don't want you see what's being left out, so you need to check the original source yourself. It can be more difficult to discern what's missing in a television or radio ad, when ellipses won't be evident. But careful editing of video can change the meaning of what's being said.
- Jackson says voters should pay attention when the narrator of a television or radio ad is a woman speaking in a soft, soothing voice. That velvety touch may be providing cover for the hammer that's about to be brought down on an opponent. "It's frequently a tip-off that what they are about to tell you is so repugnant and rough that they think it will go down easier and be easier to believe if it is a woman's voice," Jackson said.
- Jackson worries when a candidate, in federal races, appears at the beginning of an ad (rather than at the end) to make the legally required statement that he or she approved the ad. That may mean the ad is going to be so ugly the campaign is hoping that by the end of the ad the viewer will have forgotten who approved it.
- Campaigns try to lend credence to ads by including footnotes showing that the content of the ad came from a newspaper account, advocacy group or a study. But just because another source is cited doesn't mean the material used accurately reflects what the original source said. If you have doubts, check the original source. FactCheck.org found that an ad by the American Crossroads "super Pac" misused a newspaper headline to imply that Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, was at fault for the loss of millions of dollars in a college investment fund. Jackson also warns, though, to be wary of spots that don't include citations for factual claims made in the ad.
- We've all seen ads with photos of the opponent that are grainy, blurred or otherwise distorted (sometimes deliberately) to make the candidate look less attractive. "A lot of people making ads are fairly young, fairly partisan, and they get wrapped up in their own causes," said Carter Wrenn, a Republican political consultant in North Carolina. They allow their beliefs to influence their selection of images, he said. If a campaign is willing to distort the visuals, what's to keep them from distorting the content of the ad? Meanwhile, look for the candidate being touted in the ad to appear in full color with an American flag blowing in the background.
- Campaigns can be as likely to stretch the truth when they are touting their candidate as when they are tearing down their opponent. Don't assume the warm and fuzzy ads about the candidates are truthful. "Everybody focuses on the negative ads, but some of the biggest lies are in the positive ads," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic political consultant from North Carolina. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama ran an ad claiming "he worked his way through college." FactCheck.org found that to be a stretch, given that Obama had worked a handful of summer jobs rather than juggling a class schedule and a work schedule at the same time.
- Campaigns will go out of their way to link candidates, fairly or unfairly, to more recognizable national figures who may be unpopular. In the current cycle, Republicans are doing that with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "There does seem to be a competition to see who can find the least flattering photos of Obama and Pelosi," Adair said. "They are trying to link their opponent with figures who they consider to be negative."
- Campaigns love to use words or phrases that they know will get people to pay attention: "illegal aliens," "Obamacare," "job-killing economic policies." But some of the votes in Congress are more complicated than the buzz words might suggest. FactCheck.org found that Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Nevada, falsely claimed that Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid voted to give "special tax breaks to illegal aliens."
- Pay close attention to campaign material that comes in the mail or is only posted online. Those ads tend to fly under the radar and don't get the kind of media scrutiny that television and radio ads get. "That's a lot more free-wheeling," Wrenn said.
- Much like the use of distorted photos of their opponents, campaigns use ominous music to suggest someone is up to something sinister. "That's part of the theater of this," Adair said. PolitiFact said an ad by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, that featured creepy music as it charged that his Republican rival wants to make it easier to put pets to death was "half true."