The punch of political ads: Their impact depends on how much you already care about politics

Kristyn Karl, winner of the first Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship, is studying the effect of political ads on both expert and uninformed viewers.

Kristyn Karl

Photo courtesy of Kristyn Karl

Kristyn Karl grew up with a strong sense of service. The daughter of working class parents who rehab houses on the side, she also grew up knowing how to deck, felt, and shingle a roof.

So when Karl was confronted with five roofless houses as a 22-year-old AmeriCorps worker doing Hurricane Katrina relief, she offered to lead a team of roofing volunteers. “They’re like, ‘All right, sure,’” Karl says, laughing. “They just didn’t believe me.” Not until she was up on a roof offering suggestions did they realize she was the most skilled person there.

Now Karl, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan, is thinking about service differently. She wants to put her new skills to work in academia as a researcher and a teacher—one who opens students’ eyes to possibilities. As a first generation college student, she understands the importance of committed mentors. “I’d really like to be able to do that for other students,” she says.

Karl’s work blends political science and biopsychology. For her dissertation, she’s taking a nuanced look at the impact of political ads. Researchers differ on what political ads do, she says, but the more optimistic believe they can help uninformed or biased voters become more knowledgeable and impartial, and thus more effective citizens.

But Karl, the first winner of the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship, suspects it isn’t that straightforward, and that different kinds of people react differently to political ads. To tease out these differences, she brought people into the lab, exposed them to both positive and negative political ads, and measured their physiological response, or arousal. Participants then answered a series of questions about their willingness to participate in the political process.

Karl found that citizens who were not politically sophisticated or well informed reacted strongly to the ads. “If their arousal goes up, they’re more likely to say, ‘I’m going to go out and contact my representative,’ or, ‘I’m going to go out and attend a rally or demonstration,’” Karl says. But although political experts also showed a physiological response, that didn’t change the likelihood of them taking action. “They’ve already committed to participate,” Karl says. “Watching an ad is not going to change that.” Nor did their existing biases shift.

Kristyn Karl as an AmeriCorps worker, photo courtesy of Kristyn Karl

Kristyn Karl as an AmeriCorps worker, photo courtesy of Kristyn Karl

In a second experiment, Karl asked people to read an online article, without calling attention to the political ad next to it. She then posed questions to measure what participants noticed and retained from the ad. This produced a different effect. Politically unsophisticated voters blocked out the ad and did poorly on the test. But engaged voters paid attention to and remembered it. “It’s the experts who are tuning in,” Karl says. “Why? Because they care about these things and they notice them all the time.”

Karl is also analyzing data from the American National Election Studies to see if they reinforce her hypothesis that different levels of political sophistication tend to indicate whether people will notice political ads, remain receptive to new information, and participate in the political process.

Karl’s early results have revealed a not surprising but still “depressing” fact: While both positive and negative ads increased physiological arousal, the effect on citizens’ willingness to take action was stronger for negative attack ads.

But there is also good news—news that hasn’t been clearly demonstrated before. “It’s novices who are actually responding to the ads with [indications of] increasing participation,” Karl says. “If we can get people who aren’t experts to watch ads, then maybe we have some hope there.” The hurdle, she says, perhaps especially in the midst of the election-season onslaught, is “getting them to watch.”

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