General Advertising Principles

How Ads Are Put Together

Production techniques for commercials have improved dramatically over the past forty years. Ads in the 1950s were rudimentary by contemporary standards. Political spots often took the form of footage from press conferences or testimonials from prominent citizens. Many were of the "talking head" variety in which the candidate (or his or her supporter) looked straight into the camera and spoke for thirty or sixty seconds without any editing. There were no colorful graphics and no use of animation.

Contemporary ads, in contrast, are visually exciting. Technological advances allow ad producers to use colorful images and sophisticated editing techniques to make spots more compelling. Images can be spliced together to link one visual image with another. Animated images can visually transpose one person into another in a split-second using a technique called "morphing." There are a variety of ways in which catchy visuals, music, and color capture viewer attention and convey particular political messages.

Visual Images

The visual aspect of advertising is the most important part of commercials. According to the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. Contemporary ads use graphic visual imagery to grab the public's attention and convey a message. Whereas traditional research has focused on the spoken content of ads to determine ways of conveying messages, modern analysts study both the audio and visual aspects of advertising.

Candidates often attempt to undermine political opponents by associating them with unfavorable visual images. A 1990 campaign ad by Louisiana senator Bennett Johnston (D) against his opponent David Duke showed pictures of Duke addressing a Ku Klux Klan rally in the presence of a burning cross to make his point that Duke was an extremist who should not be elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate.

A similar phenomenon happened in 1996. Taking advantage of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's high unpopularity, Democrats across the country broadcast ads showing pictures of Gingrich side-by-side with Dole and House and Senate Republican candidates. The message was clear. A vote for the Republican was a vote for Gingrich. After the election, Gingrich claimed in speeches that 75,000 ads were aired against him, which was an extraordinary 10 percent of all the political spots broadcast in 1996.

Politicians also seek to enhance their positive appeal by associating themselves with images of flag and family. It is common in biographical spots at the beginning of campaigns to see pictures of the candidate with his or her family members or in official meetings surrounded by flags or other symbols of American democracy.

The visual aspect of campaign advertising is crucial because it is the one that is most remembered by viewers. When scholars have ads on videotape, they watch the ad with the sound on and then with the sound off. The reason is simple-people remember visual images longer than they do spoken words. Listening to a campaign message with the sound off lets you see the part of the ad that is most persuasive with voters. Pictures carry an emotional impact that is much more powerful than the spoken word.

CBS news reporter Lesley Stahl tells the story about a hard-hitting evening news piece she did on Reagan's presidency in 1984. The story claimed that Reagan had done certain things, such as cut the budget for the elderly, which were contrary to what he said he had done. Accompanying the story were a series of pleasant visual images of Reagan "basking in a sea of flag-waving supporters, beaming beneath red-white-and-blue balloons floating skyward, sharing concerns with farmers in a field." After the story aired, Stahl was surprised with a favorable telephone call from a top Reagan assistant. Asked why he liked the story given her harsh words, the Reagan advisor explained she had given the White House four and a half minutes of positive pictures of President Reagan: "They don't hear what you are saying if the pictures are saying something different."

Visual Text

Visual text is messages that are printed on the screen, generally in big, bold letters. Printed messages on screen grab the viewer's attention and tell him or her to pay attention to this ad. As an example, Perot's 1992 ads used visual text scrolling up the screen to persuade the American public to vote for him. Spots for Clinton in 1996 used big, splashy text on-screen to make the political point that Republicans wanted to "CUT MEDICARE." Advertisers have found that memory of a message is greatly enhanced by combining visual text with spoken words and descriptive images.

Music and Sounds

Music sets the tone for the ad. Just as hosts use upbeat music to accompany a party or educational institutions play "Pomp and Circumstance" to set a graduation scene, campaign ads use music to convey the mood of a particular commercial.

Uplifting ads use cheery music to make people feel good about a candidate. For example, the 1984 campaign featured an independently produced ad called "I'm Proud to Be an American," which used music from country singer Lee Greenwood's song of that same name. The music played over scenes of Reagan, the American flag, and cheerful scenes of happy Americans. It conveyed the message that things were good in America and people should vote for Reagan.

Conversely, somber or ominous music in an ad seeks to undermine support for the opponent. Bush's "Revolving Door" ad in 1988 had dark and threatening music accompany scenes of prisoners walking through a revolving door while an announcer attacked Dukakis's record on crime. The sounds of drums, the footsteps of guards on metal stairs, and threatening voices were integral to the ad's message that voters should reject Dukakis in the November elections because he was soft on crime.

But sometimes, musical accompaniments to campaign events can backfire. At countless rallies across the country in 1996, Dole's campaign used the 1967 Motown hit, "Soul Man" by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, as an introduction to "Dole Man." However, after Rondor Music International accused the campaign of copyright violations, Dole agreed to stop play of the song.


Color communicates vivid messages in ads. Media consultants use bright colors to associate their candidates with a positive image and grayish or black and white colors to associate opponents with a negative image. For example, in the MTV ad Dole's campaign ran in 1996, a color videotape clip in which Clinton said if he had it to do over again, he would inhale marijuana, was broadcast in black and white in order to make Clinton look sinister.

The 1992 Bush campaign developed an ad called "Arkansas Record" that featured a vulture looking out over a dark and barren landscape to make its point that Clinton had poorly governed Arkansas. That year, Bush also used a low quality grayish photographic negative of Clinton from an April 20, 1992, Time magazine cover to exhort voters to defeat the Arkansas governor in November. The cover with the photographic negative of Clinton was entitled, "Why Voters Don't Trust Clinton." Bush's ad juxtaposed a nice color image of himself to convey the message that voters should not vote in favor of Clinton.


Editing determines the sequencing and pacing of an ad. The sequencing of ad images refers to how images in one scene are related to following scenes. For example, the 1984 Reagan ad, "Morning in America," showed images of Reagan interspersed with scenes of Americans at work and a country at peace. The sequencing linked Reagan with the popular themes of peace and prosperity. All of this was accompanied by music that enhanced the emotional impact of the ad.

The pacing of an ad refers to whether the visual images flow smoothly or abruptly from scene to scene. Abrupt cuts from image to image create a jarring look that tells the viewer something bad is appearing before them. It is a common way of conveying negative feelings in attack ads.

Audiotape Voice-Overs

Through an off-screen announcer, audiotape voice-overs provide a roadmap that knits together visual scenes. Campaign ads are composed of different pictures that convey particular points. The announcer guides the viewer through these scenes so that the person is able to understand the message being communicated.

Typically, attack ads use male announcers to deliver blistering criticisms. But Dole made history in 1996 by using a female announcer to condemn Clinton's "failed liberal drug policies."

The Impact of Ads

Ads are fascinating not just because of the manner in which they are put together but also because of their ability to influence voters. People are not equally susceptible to the media, and political observers have tried to find out how media power actually operates.

Consultants judge the effectiveness of ads by the ultimate results-who wins. This type of test, however, is tautological in nature and never possible to complete until after the election. It leads invariably to the immutable law of advertising: Winners have great ads and losers do not.

As an alternative, journalists evaluate ads by asking voters to indicate whether commercials influenced them. When asked directly whether television commercials helped them decide how to vote, most voters say ads did not influence them. For example, the results of a 1996 survey by the Media Studies Center placed ads at the bottom of the heap in terms of possible information sources. Whereas 45 percent of voters felt they learned a lot from debates, 32 percent cited newspaper stories, and 30 percent pointed to television news stories, just 5 percent believed they learned a lot from political ads. When asked directly about ads in a 1996 CBS News/New York Times survey, only 11 percent reported that any presidential candidate's ads had helped them decide how to vote.

But this is not a meaningful way of looking at advertising. Such responses undoubtedly reflect an unwillingness to admit that external agents have any effect. Many people firmly believe that they make up their minds independently of the campaign. Much in the same way teenagers do not like to concede parental influence, few voters are willing to admit that they are influenced by television.

Political psychologists determine whether ads work through laboratory experiments. Viewers are generally randomly assigned to groups. One group sees an ad and the other does not (or they may see ads with different messages). Then the opinions of the groups are compared to see how ads might have influenced viewers.

But this approach is unreliable because it removes viewers from the context of their actual political environments. The same ad can have very different consequences depending on the manner in which an opponent responds, the way a journalist reports the ad, the number of times a spot is broadcast, or the predispositions of the viewer.

For these reasons, it is important to emphasize the overall context in which people make decisions. A vivid example is found in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's study of the 1988 presidential campaign. The effectiveness of Bush's "Revolving Door'' ad on Dukakis's crime record was enhanced by the majority culture's fears about black men raping white women and from earlier news stories that had sensationalized Horton's crime spree. Bush did not have to mention Horton in this ad for viewers to make the connection between Dukakis and heinous crimes.

This idea is central to understanding campaign advertisements. Commercials cannot be explored in isolation from candidate behavior and the general flow of media information. The analysis of thirty-second spots requires a keen awareness of the structure of electoral competition, strategic candidate behavior, media coverage, and public opinion.


Darrell M. West, Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-1996, second edition, Congressional Quarterly Press, 1997.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Packaging the Presidency, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates, The Spot (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984), 127-140.

"How Bush Won," Newsweek, November 21, 1988, 117.

Paul Taylor and David Broder, "Early Volley of Bush Ads Exceeded Expectations," Washington Post, October 28, 1988.

Elizabeth Kolbert, "Secrecy over TV Ads, or, The Peculiar Logic of Political Combat," New York Times, September 17, 1992, A21.

Martin Schram, The Great American Video Game (New York: William Morrow, 1987), 25-26.

The Media Studies Center poll is reported in Providence Journal, "Hype Swells as First Presidential Debate Approaches," September 29, 1996, A7.

The CBS News/New York Times numbers come from Richard Berke, "Should Dole Risk Tough Image? Poll Says He Already Has One," New York Times, October 16, 1996, A1.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, "Context and the Creation of Meaning in the Advertising of the 1988 Presidential Campaign," American Behavioral Scientist 32 (1989): 415-424.

Marion Just, Ann Crigler, Dean Alger, Timothy Cook, Montague Kern, and Darrell M. West, Cross Talk: Citizens, Candidates, and the Media in a Presidential Campaign (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Montague Kern, 30-Second Politics: Political Advertising in the Eighties (New York: Praeger, 1989).

Larry Sabato, The Rise of Political Consultants (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

Elizabeth Kolbert, "Test-Marketing a President: How Focus Groups Pervade Campaign Politics," New York Times Magazine, August 30, 1992, 18-21, 60, 68, 72.