Style over Substance? How Political Campaign Ads Affect Voter’s Gut Feelings

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dennis Young , covers the new article by Timothy J. Ryan, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States and Yanna Krupnikov, Stony Brook University, United States: Split Feelings: Understanding Implicit and Explicit Political Persuasion”

It is no secret that political advertisements often look very similar. No matter who the candidate is, images of American flags, picturesque towns, and generic statements about working hard for the people are staples of any good political advertising campaign. Academics have noted that these advertisements often have very little information about the candidates’ policies or plans but candidates keep running these types of ads. The question is, why?

New research by political scientists Timothy Ryan and Yanna Krupnikov may provide some clues. In their latest piece, “Split Feelings: Understanding Implicit and Explicit Political Persuasion,” the authors use a series of experiments to explain how the emotional aspects of political campaign advertisements work. In order to understand this concept, the authors differentiate between implicit and explicit attitudes. Explicit attitudes refer to ideas or feelings that the person is aware of. For example, after watching a movie, a person would be able to answer a question about how much they liked or disliked the movie. Implicit attitudes on the other hand, are visceral gut feelings. Maybe someone ate a bad mushroom as a child and now has a subconscious desire not to eat mushrooms. Both types of attitudes play a role in judgments and decisions but, as the authors show, they are shaped by different forces.

The authors used a total of four studies involving a hypothetical political candidate, Mike Harper, to test how exactly the music, scenery, and emotions in an advertisement affect implicit and explicit attitudes about said candidate. In the first round of tests, the authors looked at the difference between high- and low-quality ads. The two ads had the exact same narration, but one used plain background and images (low quality) as opposed to aesthetically appealing background and images (high quality). Though the message of both ads was exactly the same, the overall emotional content was intended to be more effective in the high-quality ad. To create comparable low- and high-quality advertisements, the authors hired a local actor and created the spots from scratch. When groups of study participants watched the ads, the authors found somewhat surprising results. Explicit attitudes improved only in response to the high-quality ad, but implicit attitudes improved about the same in response to both ads. This shows that political ads can influence one kind of attitude while leaving the other unchanged.

This unexpected finding prompted the authors to dig deeper to better understand exactly what kinds of advertisements might influence implicit attitudes while leaving explicit attitudes unchanged. In follow-up experiments, they tested whether simply becoming more familiar with a candidate (even without learning specific facts about them) might affect implicit attitudes. The authors presented respondents with a task that made some of them more familiar with Mike Harper, without learning anything about him: they simply saw pictures of him, typed his name, and read his campaign slogan (“Start small, go far”). Doing this improved implicit attitudes about Mike Harper—but not explicit attitudes, and not implicit attitudes about any other fictional candidates. This is evidence that simple familiarity with a candidate improves implicit attitudes towards that particular candidate.

“These experiments help to explain why political messaging that is mostly or totally devoid of substantive content—lawn signs, billboards, and vacuous television spots—works.” The fourth and final experiment examined whether implicit attitudes are insulated from the effects of negative facts about a candidate. The authors presented some subjects with a news story about Mike Harper being caught in an embezzlement scandal. They found that mere familiarity with Mike Harper improved implicit attitudes about him—even when he was caught in an embarrassing scandal. This is additional evidence that after simply seeing an advertisement for a candidate, regardless of how much anyone actually knows about said candidate, people often tend to have more positive implicit associations with them.

These experiments help to explain why political messaging that is mostly or totally devoid of substantive content—lawn signs, billboards, and vacuous television spots—works. Just becoming more familiar with a candidate tends to improve gut feelings about them, even while explicit attitudes stay the same. The effects might be enough to tip an election, even if that candidate is embroiled in a political scandal. The authors conclude that an effective political ad does not require informational content but can work by familiarizing us with the candidate. More than a good political platform, good political advertising may be about finding the right music, the right visuals, and a winning smile.

  • Dennis Young is a PhD student at the University of Washington. His dissertation research examines resistance to detention and deportation in the United States, coalitional organizing, and conceptions of freedom in these communities. This research operates at the intersection of American Politics, Political Theory, Public Law, and Race and Ethnicity Politics. In addition to this work he is also working on pieces about determinants of solidarity in protest movements, and the role of law in anti-detention organizing. He holds a B.A. from Whitman College and an M.A. from the University of Washington.
  • Article details: RYAN, TIMOTHY J., and YANNA KRUPNIKOV. “Split Feelings: Understanding Implicit and Explicit Political Persuasion.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–18.  
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