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Political ads: Analyzing voice-over use

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Presidential candidates are putting more and more money into campaign ads. During the 2012 presidential race, candidates and outside groups spent $3.8 billion on television ads, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. As of mid-August 2015, candidates and outside groups were spending nine times as much as they were during the same time period for the 2012 presidential race, and Kantar Media predicts nearly $4.4 billion will go into television ads before the 2016 presidential race is over. As political campaigns and super PACs create television ads, they carefully strategize the message they want to convey, deliberately choosing imagery, wording, colors, fonts — and the commercial’s voice-over.

A 2015 study published in Political Communication, “In a Different Voice? Explaining the Use of Men and Women as Voice-Over Announcers in Political Advertising,” looks at the frequency, effectiveness and perceptions of credibility when using voice-overs performed by men versus those performed by women in political television ads. The five researchers, led by Patricia Strach of the University at Albany, State University of New York, used a sample of more than 7,000 ads aired in U.S. legislative elections in 2010 and 2012. Researchers combined that dataset with statistics on the 2008 and 2012 presidential vote outcomes in each congressional district, 2012 presidential campaign ad credibility polls, data on the gender makeup of audiences, and Pew Center polls showing how much men and women cared about certain issues.

The study’s findings include:

  • Men voiced more than double the number of political ads in 2010 and 2012 compared to the number of ads voiced by women. Of ads containing a voice-over, 62.7 percent featured only a voice-over by a man, while only 27.7 percent contained only a voice-over by a woman. Another 9.7 percent of ads contained voice-overs by both a man and a woman.
  • Women’s voices were found to be more effective when discussing issues perceived as feminine, such as child-care, healthcare and education. Women were much more likely to voice ads discussing these so-called “women’s issues,” with a predicted probability of 41.9 percent. Women’s voices were also more likely to be used in negative ads and in ads about a candidate’s personal characteristics, rather than his or her policy proposals.
  • Republicans used voice-overs by women much more than Democrats. While the predicted probability for a voice-over by a woman in a Republican ad was 42 percent, the predicted probability for a voice-over by a woman in a Democratic ad was 28.3 percent.
  • Overall, women’s voices were perceived as less credible than men’s voices. Men found men’s voices to be more credible on average, especially on so-called “men’s issues,” which include crime and foreign policy. Women found women’s voices to be more credible than men did. Women also found women’s voices more credible in ads about “women’s issues.”
  • Advertisers used voice-overs by women to target more women audience members.

The scholars explained that many campaigns and outside groups are already very effective at these types of strategies. For example, political advertisers already frequently seek to attract women with commercials featuring women narrators, and campaign strategists often use women to voice commercials discussing “women’s issues.” However, the default of political ads is still a man’s voice at a ratio of 2:1. While in many cases using a man’s voice is more effective, the researchers conclude that, “the lesson, then, is that smart campaigns should not default to using a man’s voice for their advertising; careful consideration of the circumstances under which to use men’s and women’s voices may lend the ad more credibility.”

Related research: A 2015 study published in Information Polity,Community Matters: How Young Adults Use Facebook to Evaluate Political Candidates,” analyzed how social media influences Millennials’ political views. And, this research roundup from Journalist’s Research looks at the effects of negative political ads on voters.

Keywords: political advertising, gender, campaigns, public opinion

    Writer: | Last updated: January 7, 2016

    Citation: Strach, Patricia; Zuber, Katherine; Franklin Fowler, Erika; Ridout, Travis N.; Searles, Kathleen. Political Communication, February 3, 2015, pages 183-205. doi: 10.1080/10584609.2014.914614.

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    Analysis assignments

    Listen to the NPR interview titled "Voices of Political Ads Share Insights"

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled "In a Different Voice? Explaining the Use of Men and Women as Voice-Over Announcers in Political Advertising"

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?