Decoding Political Ads: The Stories Behind The Scare-Tactics

A young girl stands alone in a field, counting as she plucks the petals off a daisy. The camera zooms in on her angelic face, and her soft voice is overpowered by a booming male bass, counting down from 10. The disembodied voice reaches zero just as one of her fathomless pupils consumes the screen. Out of the blackness, images of nuclear Armageddon explode.

This infamous scene was part of a political advertisement (called “Daisy”) so shocking that it was aired only once by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign before being pulled.

Universally used by every party and every candidate, the political advertisement is one of American politics’ most versatile staples.

Many older Americans will remember Daisy’s startling imagery and the profound impact the commercial had on the 1964 U.S. presidential race.

Fueled by polarizing campaign issues, and changes in finance laws making it easier for third-party organizations (industry groups, labor groups, Super PACs, etc.) to receive funding, the 2012 presidential race is taking full advantage of this go-to election tool. The past few months alone have spawned dozens of 30-second spots designed to capture voters’ attention and sway their opinions.

In every ad, a story

Even in grainy black and white, Daisy delivered a potent punch to the campaign of Barry Goldwater, Johnson’s opponent in 1964.

Yet, it presented no facts, cited no statistics, and did nothing to appeal to the rational side of human thinking.

McKown says that a well-crafted political ad doesn’t waste time trying to inspire logic in its viewers. “Humans are not rational decision-makers, we’re storytellers. We make choices based on stories,” he points out.

The goal may be to tell the life story of a candidate, to make the public aware of a particular issue, to define an opponent, or to fire up an existing voter base, but a good ad always addresses these themes with a gripping narrative.

Compelling images, emotional music, and a fine-tuned script strive to tug at the heartstrings or embolden the spirit of a target audience. The creators of political propaganda don’t want voters to think—they want them to feel.

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Decoding Political Ads: The Stories Behind the Scare Tactics originally appeared on

Impact on voters

Does it work? Can a 30 second commercial change a voter’s mind?

Research shows that ads can sometimes influence a so-called “soft supporter”—someone who doesn’t have a clear reason for supporting a particular candidate.

They can also turn off voters by making people so sick and tired of politics that they forgo the polls altogether.

Experts predict that as many as 90 million Americans who are eligible to vote will drive right on by their local polling place on November 6th, without stopping in to submit their ballot.

A recent poll conducted by Suffolk University and USA TODAY sheds some light on who these people are and why they may choose to forfeit their right to choose the next president. Empty promises and corrupt practices topped the list of reasons that study participants cited when asked why they don’t pay attention to politics.

But McKown says that the current presidential race isn’t substantially more negative than past competitions. “It would be a mistake to think that political discussion is more corrupted than it has been,” he says, “It’s not as if there was this golden period where people engaged in smart discourse.”

Translation tips

How can you avoid being influenced by a persuasive ad?

The simplest way: “Don’t watch them,” says Joan McLean, Ph.D., a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University.

But, because politics has permeated practically every media outlet, evasion may not always be an option.

There are things you can do to prevent yourself from being duped by a well-placed political ad:

Embrace your inner skeptic: Whether it was created by a candidate’s campaign or a third-party organization, don’t take what you see and hear in a political ad at face value. Political speech is not subject to the same false advertising regulations as consumer products are, which means that the creators of political ads have much more leeway when making claims about a candidate or issue.

Do your homework: McKown and McLean both stress the importance of doing your own research to determine where each candidate stands on the issues. Keep in mind that candidate websites and news outlets (even those who claim to be impartial) typically have a certain political bent. If you want unbiased information, try visiting fact-checking websites, such as:, or

Talk about it: Find a friend or family member that you trust and can talk politics with. Whether you agree on the issues or not, engaging in a thoughtful, non-confrontational discussion can give you a fresh perspective on the election.

It’s important to not allow frustration or confusion to turn you off to voting all together. Finding simplified, non-biased information isn’t easy, but it can be done.

“I don’t know how we got to the point where we feel we should be educated by thirty second ads alone,” McKown says, “They’re going to present things the way they want to present them—it doesn’t mean that democracy is broken or the candidates are bad. Just do your own research.”

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By Anne-Marie Botek, Editor


Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia5 years ago

Ads are ridiculous, I prefer to do my research before making up my mind.

Nils Lunde
PlsNoMessage se5 years ago


Suzanne L.
Suzanne L5 years ago

Stars to Mary B. and Charlene R. There is also the huge amount of money spent on political campaigns. When you put that alongside the rating the U.S. got for being highest among 'western' democratic countries for children living in poverty (recent report released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development, OECD) there's something really out of whack. Interestingly, socialistic democracies like Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands (places where capitalism is balanced with socialism) have the best overall ratings for quality of life, opportunity, health, satisfaction, and happiness.

Mary B.
Mary B5 years ago

Margret P, You have said nothing new, and I totally disagree with you. Further more, you don't have a clue as to my ideas, you're just assuming they're something you call 'socialist.' My thinking cap is working just fine, girl, and it is not me who'es being duped. You may not have noticed, but there's a lot more people out there now, and dumping the survival issues of the low income on the churches is a cop out and solution that is so far out of date that it is only useful to help catch those who fall thru the social safety net cracks. In small rural communities like mine, it works fairly well, but in more densly populated areas, or way less populated areas, it just won't cut it.And by the way, I don't 'feel sorry for anybody', but I do find it stupid to let people struggle for the basics when it's totally unnesessary.

Charlene Rush
Charlene Rush5 years ago

To Margaret P.:
For how long have you been in a coma?

Tell me, please, how many poor families invited you to live in their homes, and watch their suffering during the 30's and 40's?
In the event, you are unaware, FDR was elected to the Presidentcy, 4 times. I guess all those voters thought he was a bad president, as well as you, apparently do.
If you labor under the delusion, that the poor were 'doing just fine', you must be one of the one/two percent, who just don't care.

You are in desperate need of, History 101.
Perhaps, you are either, too young to know and failed history class, or you just prefer to stay uninformed.

Giana Peranio-paz
Giana P5 years ago

I try not to look at or listen to political propaganda.

Margaret Paddock
M A Paddock5 years ago

Mary B you are a fine example of the don't think but feel tactics of the left. Feel sorry for this and that - only bigger government can solve the problems. A grand socialistic scheme and it fails in every country since it was first tried.
Put your thinking cap on girl you are being duped by the best of the liars. The Ex-Im controls the money/company jobs going overseas and it works hand in hand with the Federal Reserve which is controlled by the Central Bank that rules the three largest banks in the world. That is what is destroying our economy and unless we get the trade deficit fixed as Romney wants to and balance the budget we don't stand a chance.
Up until FDR got his fat socialist hands in government the states and local communities did a darn good job of taking care of the poor. FDR started the entitlement programs and government has just made it worse.

Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

Sick! We're a sick society.

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

Selling a p[politician is like selling toilet paper- no facts just squeezably soft.

Piper W.
Piper W.5 years ago

I've always believed that the best liar wins. :)