Political ads aim to steer your emotions. Here’s how they do that

How black-and-white photos, rolled-up sleeves and other political ad tropes are being used this election

  • Ed Mahon

Political ads on TV and online can pass by pretty quickly. But campaigns put a lot of money into those ads and the people who make them put a lot of thought into how the symbols, music and photos in those ads could affect your emotions.

To help break down how those ads might be doing that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, I talked to two experts about two races:

  • In the U. S. Senate race, featuring Democratic incumbent Bob Casey Jr. against Republican challenger Lou Barletta. Casey has led in the polls by double digits.
  • And in the 1st Congressional district in suburban Philadelphia where Scott Wallace, a Democrat and wealthy philanthropist, is trying to unseat Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick. The race is considered a toss-up.

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, has emphasized his moderate positions, including voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and supporting increased gun restrictions.

The experts looked at four ads:

  • In “Juggler” from Barletta’s campaign, a woman stands in front of a white screen as a large picture of Casey is lowered down. She starts out by cheerfully saying “I’m here to tell you everything Bob Casey has done as our senator” — and then can’t come up with anything, so kills time instead.
  • In “Stacie,” Lancaster County mother Stacie Ritter talks about how her family’s whole world changed after her twin daughters were diagnosed with cancer, and she criticized Barletta over votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which contained protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Barletta, who has a grandson with cancer, has called the ad false, insensitive and “might be the lowest thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire political life.”
  • In “Unhinged and out-of-control,” the Fitzpatrick campaign criticized Wallace after he cursed at a debate.
  • In “Independent,” Wallace promises to be an independent voice in Congress, while standing next to cardboard cutouts of Fitzpatrick and Republican President Donald Trump.

The experts are: Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the Mark and Heather Rosenker Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland; and Ted Brader, a political science professor at the University of Michigan and the author of “Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work.”

Here’s a look at some tropes in those ads.

Black and white = bad

In this ad from the campaign of Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, Democratic challenger Scott Wallace is seen in a black and white photo.

Screen shot from campaign ad

Like opponents often do in political ads, Wallace appears in black and white in this ad from Fitzpatrick.

A black and white photo of your opponent is a staple of political ads. “That historically resonates with this idea of the mugshot,” said Parry-Giles.

And sometimes the contrast can be sharper in a black and white photo, bringing more attention to a person’s features or expression in an unflattering photo, Brader said.

Muted colors are used in a sadder context in Casey’s ad featuring the two young girls with cancer.  “That just reinforces what a difficult time it was and invokes this kind of negative emotion,” Parry-Giles said.

Later in the ad, after the mother talks about how fortunate the family was to have health insurance, the girls are shown in full color.

Big faces

In the Wallace ad, Fitzpatrick’s image appears like it’s right in front of the camera.

The close-up image can feel like a violation of personal space.

“It’s like we’re going to get you so close that you can really study the facial features of this person to look for issues,” said Parry-Giles. 

In this ad from the campaign of Democrat Scott Wallace, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick is seen.

Screen shot from campaign ad

A very close-up image of Fitzpatrick is seen in this political ad against him.

The Barletta ad also used a big image of  Casey’s face.

His head and shoulders appear bigger than the grown woman narrating the ad.


In this ad from the campaign of Republican Lou Barletta, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is seen.

Casey is lowered into the frame in this ad against him.

In this ad, Casey appears as a flat character, not a full person — which makes him easier to dismiss.

The message? “He’s just a picture on the wall. He might as well be, because he’s not really been a force,” Brader said. “He’s not lifelike.”

And Casey is looking down in the photo. “He won’t even look at the Pennsylvania voters,” Parry-Giles said. “He’s looking away, as if he’s not being honest.”

Rolled up sleeves

In this campaign ad, Democratic candidate for Congress Scott Wallace stands next to cutouts of Republican President Donald Trump and Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick.

In this campaign ad, Wallace stands next to cutouts of Republican President Donald Trump and Fitzpatrick. Meanwhile, in another ad  — that the The Philadelphia Inquirer called misleading — Fitzpatrick’s campaign put an image of Wallace next to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981.

In this Wallace ad, he speaks directly to the camera — that is a move designed to build trust and it is frequently used to combat character attacks, said Parry-Giles. (There have been a lot of character attacks in the Fitzpatrick vs. Wallace race).

Brader pointed out that Wallace had his sleeves rolled up in his ad. It gives hims a folksy look. Plus, he’s standing outside suburban homes — which contrasts with the images of skyscrapers we saw earlier in the ad while Wallace was accusing Fitzpatrick of approving tax cuts for the wealthy.

In this campaign ad from Democrat Scott Wallace's campaign, Republican Brian Fitzpatrick is criticized over a tax bill.

Screen shot from ad

Wallace and Fitzpatrick have clashed over the tax reform bill that passed in 2017.

It’s also worth noting: In his own ad, Fitzpatrick has his sleeves rolled up, too, and he’s also talking in what looks like a nice suburban neighborhood. So there is an area of common ground between the two candidates.


In this campaign ad, Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick is seen with his sleeves rolled up.

Screen shot from ad

Fitzpatrick also likes to roll up his sleeves, as evidenced by this campaign ad.

The woman as character witness

Women are often used to testify to someone’s character, said Parry-Giles.

In Fitzpatrick’s case, he is shown sitting next to his mother. (She defended him as the narrator of an earlier ad.)

In this campaign ad, Republican Brian Fitzpatrick appears with his mother.

Screen shot from campaign ad

Fitzpatrick appears with his mother.

In the Casey ad, a mother is the one criticizing Barletta.

In this ad from the campaign of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, mother Stacie Ritter speaks about her daughters.

Screen shot from campaign ad

In this ad from Casey’s campaign, mother Stacie Ritter speaks about her twin daughters who were diagnosed with cancer at the age of 4.

The small and fast-moving citations

Time on TV costs money, and even online, campaigns are competing for your attention.

But people ought to pay attention to the citations, which oftentimes flash on the screen pretty quickly.

“Voters should just do more research. …They really need to read deeper,” Parry-Giles said.

This ad from Lou Barletta's campaign criticizes U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.

“Twice” appears in very large font in this ad from Barletta.


In this ad from the campaign of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, "Deny Coverage" is seen in bright yellow letters.

Screen shot from campaign ad

“Deny Coverage” is seen in bright yellow letters in this ad criticizing Barletta.


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