Emotionally manipulative political ads fail at swaying new voters, but excel at ensuring party loyalty
Both Democrats and Republicans in US elections are more likely to be emotionally moved or angered by political advertising produced by the party to which they identify. This suggests that most ads today do little to sway the other side, but rather help motivate a party's faithful to support a candidate through actions such as making a campaign donation or showing up at the ballot box.
While it may seem that the two major political parties in the United States don't have much in common, the ways both types of voters respond emotionally to political advertising is very much influenced by their party affiliation. A first-of-its-kind study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, investigated this behavior based on short political video ads intended to either emotionally move or anger voters, with implications for how parties communicate their messages and spend their ad dollars.
The comparative study involved 146 participants who viewed eight videos from the 2018 midterm US elections—four each from Democratic and Republican candidates—with content explicitly designed to evoke either anger or kama muta. The latter is a specific positive emotion related to social relationships. It is similar to the concept of 'being moved' but in the context of intensifying or building unity within a particular community.
Are political ads effective?
Not surprisingly, the researchers found people get moved and angered by political ads, which motivates them to support their side, but only by the ads that fit their prior political preference. In other words, the ads did not manage to arouse much emotion in people who favored the opposing party, and what feelings were aroused didn't have much of an effect.
"At a very general level, it may be surprising to some people that political ads are not all attack ads," said lead author David Grüning, a research scientist at Heidelberg University in Germany. "Even in today's polarized political climate, many ads attempt to inspire and move their target audience."
However, while previous research implied that political appeals to kama muta could help cross party lines, the new paper finds scant evidence for that.
"Feeling moved by an ad from the party you prefer to begin with has a stronger effect than if the other party moved you," Grüning noted.
Grüning said it is unclear why there is a discrepancy to past findings. He suggested that perhaps the ads from the 2016 US elections, which included the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, featured stronger messages.
"We now see that this is possible and need to test this better in future work," he said, "but, yes, it's clear now that sometimes, kama muta can be discounted and disregarded."
Effects of political advertising
The study has several implications based on the findings. For instance, party affiliation in the videos used by the study was not explicit, so participants were left to guess an ad's affiliation—sometimes incorrectly. In those cases, the video still had more emotional influence on viewers if they believed it was created by their political party of choice, even if the opposite was true.
That suggests campaign ads would do well to "unambiguously communicate their political affiliation to prevent unwillingly feeding the support of political competitors," according to Grüning and co-author Thomas W Schubert at the University of Oslo. Unless, of course, candidates want to distance themselves from their own party, they added.
The results of the study would also imply that political ads in modern politics have little effect in actually winning over voters from the other side. Rather, they may influence party faithful to give donations or turn out on election day.
"So far, we have only looked at motivation and intention to support, which is much easier to measure," Grüning said. "An essential next step would be to examine supportive behavior as an outcome of being moved or angered by political ads."
Perhaps, most importantly, the research demonstrates that voters on both sides of the issues are emotional human beings, which is sometimes lost in today's acrimonious atmosphere.
"So there is a perhaps unexpected bipartisan unity in what divides the parties," Grüning said.