As October is nearing its end and November is on the rise, we are finally starting to see the end of what has become one of the most exhausting political campaign seasons in history. People are calling it “the most important election in this century” or even “in history”. Well, one thing is for sure: at least most of the country will have a sigh of relief after Election Day.
This year seems to have been filled with nothing but news about the election season. It’s hard to escape the ads, but it’s easy to learn how to understand their purpose. The Toledo Museum of Art took on the subject of political persuasion with a new exhibition that showcases how imagery, music, sound effects, camerawork and words are used to stir emotions and capture votes.
“In political science, we think that ads can have an effect, but we think it’s not very large and that it fades really quickly,” said Sam Nelson, chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. “So a lot of the political science research on political ads is, ‘okay they can have some effect that you want’, but actually after a couple of days it starts to fade away.”
I Approve This Message: Decoding Political Ads is a free, immersive exhibition that opened at TMA July 14, and continues through Election Day, Nov. 8. Visitors will not see traditional works of art or political endorsements. Instead, TMA uses video, graphics and interactive media to give a nonpartisan, insider’s look at advertising, according to a press release.
Nelson says that this year’s campaign has differed from the last few election cycles for a few reasons.
“In the previous campaigns we have studied political ads, both sides were spending a lot of money on ads,” Nelson said. “So they were roughly spending similar amounts, running similar amounts of ads, and that’s not what this campaign has been like. And so we’re getting this great experiment — great from the standpoint of political science, anyway — because one campaign, the Clinton campaign, is running a lot of ads and has been for months. And the Trump campaign is running far fewer ads in states, and in some states isn’t running any. And so we may find out whether Clinton got a big advantage from advertising that normally would have been neutralized by counter-advertising from the other side, but wasn’t because it was absent this time.”
When you’re scrolling through Facebook and a video pops up, how much of it do you actually watch? Do you check to see if it is “sponsored”? Sponsored videos are content that is promoted to larger audiences because of monetary payment. But on social media, do campaign videos count as ads?
“There was social media in the 2012 election, but it has really exploded over the last couple of years,” Nelson said. “It is a much, much bigger part of this election than it was even four years ago, and certainly bigger than eight years ago. We still don’t really know what the effects of social media are in terms of campaigns. If you got a good ad that goes viral, that ends up reaching a lot of people, that maybe you wouldn’t have thought to try to reach some other way.”
The TMA’s 7000 square-foot exhibition is divided into theaters displaying ads that focus on particular emotions, such as fear, anger, enthusiasm and hope. More than 50 ads will be projected. Frame-by-frame breakdowns of key ads will demonstrate how individual elements impact viewers. Nelson said that we aren’t seeing much of these typical elements during this election season.
“One of the things that is interesting is a lot of Clinton’s ads are not much more than just clips of Donald Trump,” Nelson said. “And I don’t know how you characterize those. Is she trying to trigger fear responses by showing things that he has said? I guess so, I guess that’s what it is, but not the way in a normal ad where you would have to kinda dramatize things. She’s really just using ‘scary’ clips of things that he’s said.”
However, Clinton has created another series of ads that feature children and traditional political advertising ‘meant to give people happy, relaxed feelings about her and about the campaign’. But Nelson said that is nothing like the campaign Donald Trump is running
“I don’t think there are any Trump ads like that. I think his campaign isn’t like that,” Nelson said. “His ads are much more negative. And they’re either going to be negative about her [Clinton] or negative about the state of the world; trying to trigger fears of terrorism or immigration, that ‘Democrats are going to take your guns away’ or something like that. So they work a little differently than traditional ads.”
The exhibition organizers aim to show visitors how rational decision-making is often overridden by emotions. In the center of the exhibition, visitors will find a “Mood Room,” a space to take pause and “feel” how ambient images and sounds create emotion. Interactive, hands-on tools round out the experience, and visitors will be invited to create their own ads, among other activities.
“This exhibition is grounded in recent research into behavioral science and emotional response. We attempt to outline how political ads are consciously constructed to evoke specific emotions in viewers,” said Adam Levine, co-curator of the exhibition and assistant director of the Toledo Museum of Art, in a TMA press release. “Those creating ads know that emotional triggers override your rationality. And, we will show you how they do it time and again.”
The production of ads has a lot to do with campaign spending, which, surprisingly, we have seen much less of this year than in the past.
“Some figures I’ve seen suggests that overall less advertising spending this campaign than the last two,” Nelson said. “Clinton has plenty of money but she is not spending as much of it on television, as she is spending relative to the total. So she is spending a larger relative amount on social media, on ‘get out to vote’, on campus registration, on voter registration, on those things. And smaller shares going to paid media.”
In previous elections, Nelson said there was a more even amount of spending during the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. He said the amount of money the campaigns spent on television advertisements were equal amounts and most likely canceled each other out.
“One of the really interesting things though is looking at how they allocate their resources, how they spend their money,” Nelson said. “You know, campaigns are going to be more successful if they place it in the right markets. It’s stupid to run a bunch of ads in Texas where you know Republicans are going to win and the Democrats are going to lose… That advertising gets focused on places like Ohio, which are up for grabs. And we saw a huge amount of spending in Ohio the last few elections and not as much this time.”
The smaller amount of campaign spending this year can also be seen on a more local level, in the race for senate in Ohio.
“Portman has had a lot more money than Strickland,” Nelson said. “I think he has outspent Strickland 3-1. So there are far Portman ads than there are Strickland ads on the air, just because of the difference in their funding. What we would expect is that if one candidate swamps the other’s advertising, the person who spent the more money is going to see a bigger effect because they can both cancel out the other candidate’s message and advance their own. Portman’s doing much better in Ohio than Donald Trump, which suggests maybe Portman’s ads and his campaigns are doing a better job against Ted Strickland than Trump is doing against Clinton.”
You can still visit the TMA’s exhibit on decoding political ads for free until Nov. 8. For specific museum times and parking information, visit the TMA’s website.