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Fear, Humor, Emotion: The Political Ad Tricks That Sway Voters

Turning on the TV these days causes ad expert Tobe Berkovitz to groan in frustration.

And when pre-Election Day content is especially egregious, he admits to lashing out at the screen with critiques that only his wife can hear.

The onslaught of subpar political advertising blaring across the airwaves is what irks him. And it will only get worse between now and Nov. 8, he says.

It’s the cliches. It’s the “rainbow coalition” of people parading across the screen, allowing candidates to suggest they’re supported by many ethnicities, races, and other “identities.”

“To me, it’s like, ‘Here we go again,’” said.

=”I was in the business 30 years,” Berkovitz, now advertising professor emeritus at Boston University, told The Epoch Times. “Now, my goal is to not watch any of this” garbage anymore.

“I start trying to click [away from it] as fast as I can, or I just sit there and moan” and complain to my wife about how poorly crafted “all this stuff is.”

But he understands the ad creators’ conundrum.

At this point in election season, there’s no time to craft clever campaigns. With a little more than a month until Election Day, hired consultants scurry to control a candidate’s message.

Their aim: avoid getting forced into reaction mode, triggered by attacks from an opponent or the media.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

In the early days of a campaign, wordsmiths carefully craft compelling messages.

“Campaigns that have resources absolutely message-test the content that goes into their advertising,” often in the form of focus groups, Jake Neiheisel, an associate political science professor at the University at Buffalo and a specialist in political communication, told The Epoch Times.

If the response is favorable with paid ad-watchers, the message moves forward.

When ad-watchers frown, commercials are sent back for more tinkering.

When it’s still early in campaign season, political consultants roll out “warm and fuzzy” ads, Berkovitz said. Those often include a candidate’s family and, when possible, a pet pooch or two.

“You’re telling the voters that you are a family person, and you have a dog or a cat, and you’ve been living the nice family life.”

Volunteers with the reelection campaign for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leave these door-hanger ads, showing him with his wife and children, at the homes of voters. (Nanette Holt/The Epoch Times)

In the early months, “the advertising is a little more positive when you’re trying to create a positive image for your candidate,” Berkovitz said.

Some candidates “take the high road,” focusing on what they’re for, rather than mentioning an opponent’s views, he said.

That’s been the early tactic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who’s running for reelection against former U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D). While Crist rolls out passionate attacks against the incumbent, DeSantis releases ads that criticize no one, so far, except the “corporate media.”

But that’s likely to change in the state governor’s race, and in races across the country, as Nov. 8 approaches.

It’s about the time when “the gloves come off, and you just start wailing away at your opponent,” Berkovitz said. And that’s been the way of politics “since our country became a democracy.”

This time in the cycle, the pace of most campaigns is “really very frantic,” he added.

Candidates tread carefully, hoping to avoid situations that might force them to react.

“The goal of political advertising, and the goal of politics, is to set the agenda,” Berkovitz said. “And if you set the agenda, you can be proactive, you’re on the offensive. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

“It could be your opponent is attacking you. It could be the media is attacking you. It could be that, all of a sudden, there’s a news story that affects the campaign. All of these things have an impact.”

“The political consultants, and the candidate, and the campaign strategist, and campaign manager all have to be smart and hope that they get [the advertising response] right.”

Shifting Messages

Astute voters may notice candidates suddenly adopting a more moderate position on issues in the last weeks of the campaign.

Some Republican candidates have retooled the way they speak about abortion, backing away from earlier vows to work to outlaw it. Some Democrats have toned down anti-gun rhetoric.

Before the primaries, candidates aimed their message at “hardcore Republicans” and “hardcore Democrats,” Berkovitz said.

But now, “the real battle now is for the Independents, especially the suburban voters,” he said.

It’s for those “who aren’t as ideological, and can be swayed by what’s going on. Whether it’s Mar-a-Lago, or whether it’s the border, they get influenced by what’s going on in the news, especially what is affecting them and their family.”

Candidates are scrambling now to win those voters.

Epoch Times Photo
Supporters of former President Donald Trump drive around the Paul G. Rogers Federal Building & Courthouse in West Palm Beach on Aug. 18, while a hearing on the raid of Trump’s home, Mar-a-Lago, takes place inside. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

“But the challenge is to break through the clutter,” Berkovitz said, adding it’s nearly impossible now to grab and hold the attention of people being bombarded with campaign messaging.

“Remember, most people care more about their shampoo than, ‘Who’s gonna be my next senator?’ That’s the average person.

“Yes, you have a lot of political junkies who’ve been paying attention for the last six months. But most people are more concerned about, ‘Is my kid going to do OK at school? Are we going to be able to pay the mortgage?’

“So, what the political people do is try to push that hot button that’s going to affect the voter emotionally.”

“You do that through visuals. You do it through sound effects. You do it with taking content out of context,” Berkovitz says, a bit apologetically.

“And by the way, that’s what America has always done in its political advertising and communication during campaigns.”

Tricks That Sway Us

One way to move voters emotionally is to copy horror-movie techniques.

“I used to call it slasher advertising,” Berkovitz says. “You know, like the old sort of 1980s, 1990s slasher movies, where you’d have creepy music and visuals.”

By using odd, unappealing colors and eerie camera angles in portraying an opponent, the ad sends a worrisome message: “that they are an evil person.”

“And if they are elected, they are going to do very bad things for you and your family and our society,” Berkowitz said. “Both sides do this. It’s sort of standard operating procedure.”

During his 1988 campaign for president, then-Vice President George Bush ran “just brutal ads” against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Berkovitz said.

Some of the ads used “slasher” music when questioning Dukakis’s record on crime.

Vice President George H.W. Bush gives his acceptance speech
Vice President George H.W. Bush gives his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans, La., on Aug. 18, 1988. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Handout via Reuters)

“He just took Mike Dukakis apart” with the ads, Berkovitz said.

Another old ad trick involves showing headlines from “very biased news media or taken out of context,” he said.

Published headlines or video clips from a media outlet give an ad “alleged credibility,” he said. It suggests, “Look! Here’s what the media has been saying about my opponent.’”

Also common is to use the rival candidate’s words against him or her.

“Your opponent said something that might have been several sentences long, and you grab one part of it, and pull it out of context,” he said. “But you don’t say the next sentence that your opponent said, which sort of clarifies it.”

Using humor to attack or mock an opponent almost always delivers voter loyalty.

“It’s entertaining, and that’s very effective, if you can do it,” Berkovitz said.

This “Top Gov” poster that features images from ad released by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sells for $25 and is part of a large merchandise collection offered by the campaign. (Courtesy of Ron DeSantis for Governor)

One candidate who skillfully wielded humor to his advantage was President George W. Bush, when he was running for reelection in 2004.

A Bush ad showed footage of John Kerry, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, zipping back and forth across the waves on a windsurfing board.

Bush’s ad gurus set the footage to music, the iconic classical piece “On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Op. 314.”

As Kerry pilots the board through frequent changes of direction, a narrator points out Kerry’s back-and-forth opinions on issues, switching to match whichever way the wind blows.

“It’s John Kerry being ripped apart by George Bush,” Berkovitz said of the ad. “Just brutal, absolutely taking him apart. But it’s tough to do that. And remember, not everybody has a sense of humor. But if you can pull that off, it gets people.”

Bush won the election.

DeSantis recently released an ad that was a parody of the movie “Top Gun,” portraying himself as “Top Gov.” In it, he used humor to take on the corporate media by pointing out their partisan attacks.

“It worked for him,” Berkovitz said. “He got ripped apart for that, which basically tells you they fear the ad.

“If the media is attacking an ad, either it’s because it’s so vile that it deserves to be attacked” or they perceive it’s good for the candidate they don’t favor, he said.

“So I think that’s what happened on that one. DeSantis seems to know how he wants to present himself, and he seems to have consultants who are pretty effective at communicating what he thinks.”

‘Hey, Martha!’

Candidates hit the jackpot when they create an ad people love to watch.

“I once worked with a political consultant who called them ‘Hey, Martha commercials,’ because someone would be watching TV and go, ‘Hey, Martha, here’s that ad on again!’” Berkovitz said.

“If you can have an ad that people actually want to take a look at, that tends to be a pretty big victory.”

This late in election season, “most of this stuff is just nasty video wallpaper that people try to avoid,” he said. “Now that we’re getting towards Election Day, it’s just wall-to-wall political advertising.”

That makes it even harder for candidates to catch the attention of the voters they need—the still-undecided crowd.

“So that’s your challenge: ‘How do I get someone to pay attention to my ad, when they’re just sick and tired of all these political ads that they’re being bombarded with?’”

A well-timed Hail Mary could come in the form of an uplifting commercial.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. President George Bush (R) and presidential candidates Ross Perot (L) and Bill Clinton (C) greet each other at the athletic center at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 11, 1992. The men are participating in the first of three U.S. presidential debates. (DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1992, when campaigning for his first term as president, Democrat Bill Clinton ran a touching one-minute ad describing his humble beginnings and desire to make a difference.

In 1984, incumbent President Ronald Reagan (R) ran an ad titled “It’s Morning in America Again.”

“This is consistently called one of the most emotionally effective political ads ever made,” the New-York Historical Society said in its description of the commercial.

“Studies show that when it comes to political advertising, we feel first and think later,” the historical society’s website says. “So the most impactful campaign ads aim for our hearts—fear, anger, hope, and pride.”

President Ronald Reagan commands “Tear down this wall!” while addressing the people of West Berlin on June 12, 1987, famously beginning the end of the Cold War. (Mike Sargent/Getty Images)

It’s the music and the visuals that grab us, Neiheisel said.

“TV is a medium that appeals to the emotions quite well, so emotional content is common in campaign ads,” he said.

With no budget or time constraints, Berkovitz’s ad strategy would be to “show them that I am a reasonable person with views that are moderate and are like theirs.”

“And I am not going to be doctrinaire. I’m not going to be pulled by one side or the other.”

That’s the kind of messaging that appeals to moderates. And they’re the 10 percent of voters that “will probably decide the election,” Berkovitz said.

But sounding too moderate can irk a candidate’s loyal base.

“You’ve got to motivate your base and with the red meat stuff,” Berkovitz said. “Both sides have their hot buttons,” Berkovitz said.

Epoch Times Photo
Protesters shout as they join thousands marching around the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix after the Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision on June 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“But Independents care more about who’s going to make it so that I can afford gas, who’s going to make it so I can feed my family, who’s going to make it so that if I’m lucky enough to get my kid into college, I’ll be able to afford it. They tend to be more focused on what’s going to be good for me and my family.”

For now, Berkovitz hopes he won’t spend the remainder of this election cycle channel-surfing in a hapless attempt to avoid deplorable ads.

“I want something that’s sort of clever, something that’s a little bit creative. You know, something that I can actually almost enjoy watching,” he said. “There’s almost none of that.”

Nanette Holt


Nanette covers a wide range of issues, mostly in Georgia and her home state of Florida. She started as a journalist in a competitive, daily-newspaper market, and later launched a community newspaper in a geographic area ignored by other media. She spent many years writing and editing for a variety of national and international magazines, and has been hired to coach best-selling authors for book publishers. When she’s not chasing news, Nanette enjoys cattle ranch life with her husband, three children, and far too many horses, goats, cats, and dogs.

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