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April 11, 2008
Rating: 8/10

Most of us, LAS staff and readers alike, consider ourselves intelligent, well-read, and introspective people, smart consumers of not only material goods but ideological and philosophical premises as well. As such savvy citizens, we approach the myriad of contentious issues involved in modern politics with rationality and determination, and consider ourselves largely immune to the gut-wrenching and sometimes completely cracked emotional baiting of political television advertisements. Am I right?

Though we may fervently believe ourselves incapable of being influenced by the outlandish claims of campaign commercials, in the book Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work, Ted Brader, a Political Science lecturer at the University of Michigan, says that in-depth analysis of emotional campaigning suggests otherwise. According to Brader, we're exactly the kind of people most susceptible to emotional politics.

It is no secret that politicians, whether running for office or championing legislation, play on the emotions of their constituents (and sometimes their colleagues) to gain support. Emotionally tinting the issues on which they hold forth is the most effective way for politicians to shore up backing for their positions, but Brader shows that some of the mechanics most effective in successfully delivering that emotional charge are less obvious than others. It is those less overt but highly effective aspects of campaigning that Brader focuses on, and his book, published by the University of Chicago Press, posits that most of Us - that is to say the intelligent, well-read, introspective, and politically savvy - in fact are influenced by emotional political advertising, and in different ways and to a much greater extent than we might imagine.

Brader's entire process gives structure and measurability to a phenomenon that has been often alluded to but seldom quantified, and had his book been published this year rather than in the Presidential off-election year of 2006, it would have undoubtedly been more noticed in the mainstream media. Although he has since been drafted by the National Science Foundation for research into how popular responses emerge to world-wide phenomena like globalization and terrorism, Campaigning for Hearts and Minds is Brader's first foray into laymen's literature. The book is tinged throughout with a distinctive academic panache, and like a good deal of interesting, relevant, and accurate scholarly research it has been largely overlooked.

At the crux of his book, Brader states that although the emotional slanting of political advertisements is no secret, what drives their true effectiveness and determines who they ultimately impact the most may be grossly misunderstood. The traditional thinking among academics, politicians and campaign managers has been that emotional advertising worked for vague, mystical reasons, and that those most susceptible to being influenced by emotionally-charged campaigns are the most uninformed voters. The emptier the canvas, the more colored it becomes with any campaign message, so to speak. But as Brader's sometimes startling research shows, the voters that are in fact more likely to be affected by the generally dubious and often obnoxious assertions of emotional advertisements are those who are more informed and "sophisticated." That being more invested in an issue would make a voter more, rather than less, inclined to be influenced by such advertisements seems counter-intuitive, and the conclusion shocked not only his colleagues and political analysts but Brader himself, it seems. To show that it is not the philistine but the infocrat who most relies on emotional input when deciding when to vote and what to vote for is to throw cold water on long-standing conventional thinking.

To conduct his study, Brader first needed to define the "emotional" aspects of advertisements before each could be assigned a certain value. To do so he concentrated on seven types of emotions: fear, anger, enthusiasm, pride, compassion, sadness, and amusement. When analyzing the television spots run in 1999 and 2000 ahead of the Y2K election cycle, Brader found that the most dominant emotion present in a majority of ads was enthusiasm. Next on his list, however, lurked fear and anger in a close second and third, and their use is shown to have increased as the polling margins between the two candidates decreased. In compiling the statistics, Brader found that "when a race is close, the share of ads targeting fear increases twofold for Senate candidates, and threefold for House and gubernatorial candidates." He also noticed that "the share of ads trying to elicit enthusiasm drops by anywhere from six to fourteen percentage points" as races become tighter, and went on to show that the use of fear-heavy ads is a tactic favored by the underdog, as candidates run them more often when their party is weaker and switch to more enthusiasm-based ads when the party is stronger. Which means that, having been roundly trounced by Democrats in the 2006 Congressional elections and left feeling the collective retribution of an incumbent President with an ever-slipping approval rating, voters can expect Republicans to unleash an onslaught of fear ads this year.

For those snickering that predicting a smear campaign in an election year is hardly a revelation, Campaigning for Hearts and Minds goes beyond the low-hanging fruit. Delving into the dynamics of long, drawn-out campaigns that never really shift positions yet react to increasingly fast and accurate polling, Brader found that the actual words coming out of a candidate's mouth are not the most significant factors in the effectiveness of a political advertisement. Neither is how often the ad is viewed. Instead, the sight and the sound of an ad weigh heavier than the sentences: simply changing haircuts, font sizes, background colors, voices, music and other sensory elements can greatly alter the emotional impact of an ad, even when the message stays the same. "The simple messages contained in political ads may spark an emotional response," Brader writes, "but the ads are assumed to derive the bulk of their emotional power from something other than the words." Which means that the next time they encounter a campaign commercial on television, the truly savvy voter will assess the tone of the music as well as the topic of the message.

Any type of media analysis can be mundane for the casual reader, and data crunching on political advertising has the potential to be excruciatingly dry, but in his book Brader does an adequate job of supplanting some academic jargon with interesting writing. If there is one unyielding flaw in academic research, it's that the obtuse specificity of the language dissuades the technically unfamiliar, yet otherwise intelligent reader from wading through the jargon to find the interesting bits. Hence, many people consider the academic world out-of-step with contemporary society, and the public is generally left with a situation where the results of statistical and academic analysis on politicals are filtered through the entertainment medium of talk show pundits and media commentators, which can be distorting to say the least. While Campaigning for Hearts and Minds doesn't completely dispense with the use of stuffy scholarisms (coefficients, variables, multivariate analysis, and even the dreaded null hypothesis make appearances), Brader's brisk and somewhat refreshing writing style, compounded with his straightforward graphs and tables, make the book enjoyable even for those outside the lecture hall.

Beyond categorizing, tallying, and documenting the emotional mechanics of political advertising and the impact on voters, Brader's book also makes a number of interesting implications for emotional advertising's impact on political discourse itself. Albeit somewhat timidly, Campaigning for Hearts and Minds suggests that "fear causes political novices to withdraw from the general election, even as experts are inspired to act." The implications are ominous, especially at a time when both the government's disconnection from popular sentiment and the increasing disenfranchisement of voters have been well documented. The way Brader's book has things playing out, emotional commercials can lead to a scenario in which the appeals made to attract support for a candidate, or a piece of legislation, can negatively impact the entire sphere of the debate. Rather than rallying its core audience and persuading undecideds, if improperly formulated on an emotional level such commercials stand a good chance of actually polarizing an audience that may well have already been philosophically united. In the process, motivation dissipates as well-informed and decided voters from both sides can become re-entangled in the fear, anger, enthusiasm, pride, compassion, sadness, and amusement, unlocking their secure votes, while the less-informed voter becomes even more passive and drops further out of the democratic process.

From the painting of inter-party rival John McCain as "pro-abortion" and "the fag candidate" in the 2000 Republican primaries to the swift-boating and flip-flopping attacks on John Kerry in 2004, one of the most discouraging legacies of Republicans' hallowed Karl Rove political machine has been the increased vileness of negative advertising. Ironically just like the global warming feedback loop that worsens as it perpetuates itself, the Bush Administration's dubious records on civil rights, fiscal policy, foreign affairs, domestic security, environmental protection, and even war-making (branded "defense") have put both supporters and detractors on the defensive, which has required further amplifying the emotionally charged campaign advertisement to break the din. Like a spiraling heroin (or oil, if you prefer) addiction, a level of doublespeak never before seen already laces modern politics and is now ingrained into the country's political psyche, and to satisfy the ferocity of the marketplace the rhetoric will only become more dense.

It may take the United States decades to polish its tarnished image abroad, and at home the Bush Administration's tactic to frame virtually every issue as an "all-in or all-out" moral ultimatum has left friends, families, and even former political allies, both left and right, estranged from each other. But as Campaigning for Hearts and Minds points out, more damage has been done with emotions than weapons, and it is of the kind of devastation that is not easily undone.

With politicians slugging through the most divisive and wide-open nomination process in recent memory and voters turning out at polling stations in record numbers, there has perhaps never been a more apropos time for Campaigning for Hearts and Minds than 2008. By all accounts we are heading into what should be one of the most fanatical Presidential battles ever. Having paced themselves through the month to month of accumulating delegates in the primaries, now that the picture is far more certain the candidates will soon be unleashing a flood of emotional confectionary on a weekly, daily and even hourly basis. Considering the degree to which political advertisements hit below the belt in the comparatively homogenous Bush vs. Kerry election of 2004, Brader's book doesn't paint a very rosy picture for a national election in which one candidate will assuredly be either the first woman or the first African-American nominee for President of the United States. We are almost certain to see the emotional appeals escalate to new extremes but, as Brader shows, voters that are as much aware of a campaign's sensory tricks as they are of its political rhetoric are more likely to plunge deeper into the logistical truths of various issues and rely less on 30-second television clips altogether.

SEE ALSO: brader.isr.umich.edu

--
Brian Christopher Jones
A student living in Scotland and working toward a PhD in law.

See other articles by Brian Christopher Jones.

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