Propaganda Politics

Today’s Campaign Advertisements Focus on Image,
Not Issues

November 1, 2006

By Valerie Orleans

It’s no longer “Morning in America,” judging by the current crop of political campaign ads that are appearing this fall.

Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” television ads still appear to be the gold standard by which other political campaign ads are measured, according to Raphael J. Sonenshein, professor of political science. He said none of this fall’s ads for governor, nor the ads for previous presidential elections, come close to besting Reagan’s ads.

“The ‘Morning in America’ ads really generated a positive response,” Sonenshein said. “If you see the ad, the focus is on America, not Ronald Reagan. They tied Reagan’s reelection to all the good things happening in America. They understood that life was more important than politics to voters.”

It’s a different story today.

Nancy Snow, associate professor of communications and propaganda authority with two books on political propaganda, points to the way candidates position themselves.

“It’s kind of fun to watch,” she said. “In Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign ads, you hear this patriotic music and there are video images of him looking healthy and strong while voice-overs tell us that taxes were not raised and 500,000 new jobs were created under Arnold’s watch. There’s pageantry and dramatic visuals. Then, there’s the contrast. You see this ridiculously awful shot of Phil Angelides and the narrator tells viewers that Angelides is going to raise your taxes. We call this card stacking. There is an obvious distortion — but the fence sitters will pay attention. I think you’ll see a lot of this ad just before the election.”

In contrast, Angelides’s ads seem, well, a little wimpy.

“The catch line for Angelides is that he’s a leader, not an actor,” Sonenshein said. “Is there anyone who didn’t know Arnold was an actor? Do they think people are smacking themselves on the forehead and saying, ‘An actor? I thought he was a dentist!’”
Nevertheless, political advertisements seem to work, Snow and Sonenshein said. “More people pay more attention to political ads than they do to news reports,” Sonenshein explained. “TV coverage of elections is really horse race journalism — it’s all about who is ahead and by how much. TV news is reluctant to give information on candidates. They’re more interested on reporting whether or not the campaign tactics are working as far as persuading voters.”

Unfortunately, Sonenshein and Snow said they are seeing more tolerance for campaigns that lie in their ads.

“I could go on television and tell everybody that you are a terrorist and want to destroy America,” Sonenshein said. “I could use photos that are doctored to look like you’re having a barbecue with Osama bin Laden. But, I would make sure that an ‘independent group’ released these ads so, when questioned, I could say that this is not something I endorsed. I enjoy the down and dirty fights in politics as much as anyone, but I find lying highly offensive.”

One example is how former presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, a Vietnam War hero, was subjected to false accusations about his war conduct on a “swift boat” during the war. An “independent group” produced a series of false ads claiming that Kerry did not act in a heroic manner and may, in fact, have jeopardized his men. The ads generated a new verb — swift boating — meaning a political attack on an opponent, resulting in a benefit to the group spreading the rumor.

“Even after the ad was proved false, the media kept bringing it back up by checking on the number of people who had been swayed by the ad, how the president was responding and so forth,” Sonenshein said.

Besides bold-faced lies, there is deception. For example, a proposition sometimes is given a name that has an overwhelmingly positive connotation like the Clear Skies Initiative, Snow said. “I mean, who is against clear skies? But, essentially, the Clear Skies Initiative would result in significantly fewer reductions of air pollution and weaken the Clear Air Act, according to the Sierra Club. While some communities might see clearer air, more would not.”

As such, ads cloud the issues and political candidates are focusing less on issues, even during debates, Sonenshein said.
“A lot of the debates get carved up into ads,” he said. “If one of the candidates stumbles and makes a mistake, you can bet his or her opponent will seize the opportunity to use that. Then, you get the commentators saying things like, ‘The guy sighed too much.’ The issues tend to get lost, or so deeply buried, that the typical voter isn’t going to take the time to consider them.”

As voters prepare to go to the polls this month, Sonenshein predicts they will be bombarded with negative ads.
He predicts blogs also will take on an increasingly important role.

“I like blogs,” Sonenshein said. “They represent the free market of ideas and they present a real challenge to mainstream media because they get their messages out quickly. They also tend to be less cautious. Many politicians don’t like blogs because of that.”

“A lot of people also do not trust the media,” Snow added. “Blogs are coming into an age where folks are now starting to take them seriously.”

While many people “see democracy as formal, beautifully organized and always truthful,” Sonenshein said, “there’s the other side as well — dirty, rough, a street fight. I think the combination of both good and bad qualities are what interest voters.”


Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow

Raphael Sonenshein
Raphael Sonenshein