A Viewer’s Guide: How to Watch Campaign Ads

It’s that time again, when scary stuff comes at you from your television, your computer and your mailbox. That’s right, it’s campaign season. (Maybe the founding fathers deliberately placed the biggest elections right after Halloween.)
 
With Election Day looming, campaign ads are flying. They are on television, the radio and the Internet. They are filling up your mailbox and, in a few instances, taking up space in your newspaper. That means the claims, accusations and boasts will be flying as well.
 
So how do you know what and who to believe? How do you know which candidates are telling the truth, about themselves or their opponents? How do you become a more discerning consumer of political ads?
 
You could take the advice offered up by Brooks Jackson, a veteran journalist who covered Washington and national politics for the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and CNN before launching FactCheck.org in 2003.
 
“Trust no one,” he said.
 
Jackson, who is now director of FactCheck.org, was being somewhat flip with his advice. But he says voters need to be aware that political campaigns don’t have to follow the same rules that apply to advertising for commercial products.
 
“There is absolutely no consumer protection whatsoever when it comes to political ads,” Jackson told me. “They have the legal right to lie to you.”
 
Most campaigns are careful not to tell outright lies, because it can backfire if they are caught red-handed telling a lie. Instead, they look for the gray areas.
 
“The overall pattern we see from nearly every campaign ad is they take a germ of truth and exaggerate it or twist it in some way,” said Bill Adair, Washington bureau chief for Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times and the editor in charge of PolitiFact, a Pulitizer Prize-winning news service that checks the veracity of campaign ads and statements by political figures.
 
Adair knows it can be difficult for voters to sift through all the information available these days.
 
“There is a paradox because we now have more information about candidates and campaigns than ever, but it’s coming from sources that are not necessarily reliable,” he said. “You have to make some effort to verify what you’re hearing.”
 
So, what’s a voter to do? For starters, it’s a good idea to become familiar with sites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. They do the checking for you, at least in ads for high-profile races. The Center for Public Integrity has launched an effort to get voters to report on campaign ads they believe are backed by corporate or labor union money.
 
But as good as they are, those organizations can’t get to the thousands of ads bombarding voters. So we talked with Jackson and Adair, as well as a couple of political consultants from both sides of the partisan aisle, to put together a few tips.

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.

 
What’s missing?
  • 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
Soothing but sinister
  • 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.
Who approved this ad?
  • 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. 
Cited source
  • 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.
Unflattering images
  • 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. 
Nice guys are deceptive too
  • 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.
Guilt by association
  • 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.”
Buzz words
If it’s only in the mail or online, be skeptical
  • 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.
Spooky music works in campaign ads just like it does in the movies
  • 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.”
Wrenn, the Republican political consultant from North Carolina, says he thinks voters already have a healthy does of skepticism when it comes to political ads. “It’s not like Americans haven’t been watching political ads for 30 years,” he said. “They approach a political ad with a little bit of disbelief.”
 
Pearce, his Democratic counterpart (they operate a political blog together), largely agrees. “The truth is that people are pretty sophisticated about this,” he said. “They realize that things can be twisted.”
 
But Jackson warns that voters can be fooled, especially when they hear the same message repeated whenever they turn on their televisions.
 
“The people who write deceptive messages count on people not taking the time to check it out and validate it,” Jackson said. “It’s better to ignore this stuff if you’re not certain it’s true. Just because you’ve heard something 45 times doesn’t make it any more true.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.