Helping Viewers Find the Truth in Campaign Ads

Frank W. Baker
Frank W. Baker of the Media Literacy Clearinghouse examines what to look for in political advertising.

This item was adapted from Baker's post on MiddleWeb, a website for middle school teachers. His book “Political Campaigns & Political Advertising: Media Literacy Guide” investigates the role of media in politics. He is a member of our advisory committee on education. Follow him on Twitter: @fbaker

With less than two weeks until Election Day, political campaign commercials are everywhere, on every channel, at all hours of the day and night — and you’re probably ready to throw something at your TV each time one comes on.

Even in this Internet age, with social media at everyone’s fingertips, politicians continue to advertise on television — and the numbers keep growing.

The Wesleyan Media Project, which monitors campaign advertising, reported earlier this month that according to Kantar Media/CMAG, which collects data on political expenditures, the amount of money spent on media ads during the 2014 midterm elections will top $1 billion (yes, billion, with a “b”).

Campaign ads are considered “free speech” and thus cannot be edited, censored or blocked. Given this amount of leeway, political candidates will (and do) say anything — even outright lies — in their ads.

So how are you supposed to know what to believe?

Several years ago, I created an advertising worksheet designed to aid teachers who wanted their students to recognize all of the elements that go into making a commercial and learn to appreciate the techniques of manipulation involved, including the ever-present appeals to emotion.

Viewers of these ads need to understand and study the “language of the moving image” — both the tools (camera, lighting, sound) and techniques (music, symbolism, color, etc.) that are used to create the ad package.

When you next see a political ad, consider:

  •  The type of ad: Is it biographical? Negative? Warm and fuzzy?
  • The audience targeted: Who is the ad trying to reach? (Here’s a hint: During what TV program is the ad airing?)
  • The key images: Who is the candidate seen with? What colors or symbols are being prominently displayed?
  • The sounds: Does the ad feature music? If so, how does it affect how the message might be received?
  • The themes: Every ad has a theme, even a title — can you tell what it is?
  • The words on the screen and in the voiceover: Who is quoted? Where do the “facts and figures” originate? Could they be misinterpreted?

For several years, newspapers and television stations have published or broadcast “fact check” columns, dissecting what politicians say in their ads. The “fact checkers” can’t block the advertising, but they can break down the words, images and claims in the ads and report on what they find.

Some of the best-known sites are: