Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The art of election ads

By Kelsey Mejlaender, Copy Editor

Of the many annoying advertisements that plague us daily, few are worse than election ads. They bombard our televisions relentlessly around voting season and are notorious for statements that toe the truth line.

Often though, it’s the visual aspect of an ad that can be the most subtle and dangerous element. Unlike statistics or statements, which can be fact checked, visual persuasion techniques are more insidious, influencing a voter’s subconscious. Well-planned marketing art is carefully designed to sway Americans into making the “right” decision.

Some typical tricks involve color and symbols. Red, white and blue are prerequisites for politicians who want to seem patriotic and other colors, such as yellow, are typically avoided. If the ad is attacking a candidate, the colors shift dramatically. Clips are shown in black and white, suggesting a range of possible meanings. Perhaps it’s intended to convey the candidate is stuck in the past, out of touch or even that he or she will bring darkness to government.

Sometimes, after the advertiser’s sound bite is delivered, the screen will freeze and the clip will fade into black and white as the voiceover explains what the candidate has done wrong. The darkening of the clip paired with the accusations lends the ad a sinister air, instantly leading viewers to perceive the targeted candidate in a more negative light.

An ad with this black and white image is then often followed with a blast of patriotic color as the candidate benefitting from the ad appears. That person then explains why she or he should be elected instead.

Colors do little good without context, however, which is where the symbols come in.

Standard American symbols are frequently incorporated whenever possible. Whether it’s the majestic bald eagle — our nation’s emblem — soaring in the background or a faded backdrop of stars and stripes, candidates want viewers to associate them with the U.S.

Even the American people can appear as symbols in a political ad. Shots of supportive crowds are shown to demonstrate how many citizens stand behind a particular politician.

The type of people shown isn’t exactly random either. If the ad is highlighting a candidate’s support for the working class, then the people shown will be blue-collar workers either interacting with the politician or smiling happily for the camera. 

The appearance of the candidates is crucial too. While ads that attempt to depict politicians negatively will select shots where a candidate looks angry or depressed, an ad that champions a candidate will select very different images. They’ll be shown standing tall and proud with stoic expressions.

Other times, positive ads show candidates interacting with constituents to give the appearance of compassion or signing legislation to make them appear active.

There are certain facts political ads strive to drive home in voters’ minds. One effective technique is the combination of text and audio. As reporters or candidates speak, key words pop up in bold text or the camera pans across the line in a newspaper to ensure the audience doesn’t miss the point.

In the end, election ads are no better than a commercial for McDonald’s. They are just a marketing exercise to sway the uninformed voter. But even the most politically aware citizen can fall under the visual spell. Most viewers are influenced by the ads, even if they claim not to be.

Next time you turn on the TV to see red, white and blue marketing, don’t let all the flashy graphics and visual strategies blind you.