An argument for the end of political ads?

With election season coming up, the presidential candidates have invested heavily—recruiting top ad executives, media researchers, producers, etc.—in creating the perfect ads to highlight their own strengths and their opponents’ shortcomings. But how much does this effort really sway voters? Perhaps not surprisingly, not much. Recent research from Ohio State University focused on this idea, exposing participants to a variety of 2008 presidential campaign ads from John McCain and Barack Obama. While viewing these ads, the researchers tracked participants’ physiology, including heart rate, skin conductance, and facial muscle activation. Such measures allowed researchers to tap into attentional and emotional reactions not always fully captured by traditional pencil-and-paper attitude scales.

Their findings indicated that while partisan participants showed strong physiological reactions to the ads of the candidate they supported, there was little change from baseline measures when viewing the opposing candidate’s ads. Among participants who were yet undecided, there was no detectable physiological difference during viewing of the two candidates’ ads.

While much previous research has focused on selective exposure—the idea that individuals seek out and believe information in line with their pre-existing beliefs while ignoring or discounting information opposing these attitudes—the present work suggests a potential physical basis for this phenomenon, showing that physiological centers of attention and emotion are engaged selectively depending on whether we already endorse the information being presented or not. In essence, according to the lead researcher on this study, “if people are exposed to information in ads regarding a candidate they oppose, they respond by basically tuning out.”

What might these results imply for the current election? While each candidate’s ads may drum up support from individuals already in favor of him—perhaps motivating them to register or get more involved in the campaign—they’ll likely do little to sway voters who are already leaning in the opposite direction. The key targets, of course, are swing voters, and while the current work doesn’t speak specifically to how to influence this group, it does indicate that these voters are essentially a blank slate, focusing attentional and emotional resources equally on both candidates. Luckily, there are 50 years worth of research on persuasive communication that may inform how to address these voters. The key, of course, is how to implement it.

Regardless of your political affiliation, please make sure you are registered and cast your vote on November 6!