Coding US Presidential Election Ads

I have great news to share with readers of this blog. I was recently awarded an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to continue my research on narrative in the public sector. The grant is for $53,000 and will run over 4 years. I will be using it to support the writing of a successor to my 2011 book Governing Fables. I will have more to say about the book on other occasions.

One aspect of this research is a study of the use of narrative in election campaigns. Recently I coded the use of narrative techniques in moving image advertising for the 2015 Canadian federal election, which I discussed in my post last January 4. Now I’m at it again, this time coding ads for the US presidential election. I’m particularly interested in how the presumptive nominees tell their own story and tell their opponent’s story.

Now that it appears there are presumptive nominees, I’m beginning to code their moving image ads (with the help of an able research assistant). We’re focusing first on official ads on their own YouTube pages, as opposed to third party (PACs, national committees) ads. And at this point, we’re paying attention to advocacy ads, in which Hilllary Clinton and Donald Trump tell their own stories. They have been running ads of this kind for several months. There are not many attack ads yet in which Trump and Clinton are attacking each other, and I’m not interested in their ads attacking other candidates who were contesting the nominations.

Our codebook will be comparable to the one used in the Canadian election research, but isn’t quite finalized. We will be coding for characteristics like: the balance between advocacy and attack; the choice of narrator; the topic or issue; the fable; the geographic or demographic group focus of the ad if it isn’t national; the visual presentation, including color choice for the candidate and background colors; the choice of background music; the viewcount; and votes liking or disliking the ad.

So far I’ve had a quick look at 25 Trump and 60 Clinton ads, and we are just getting started on the more rigorous work of coding.

The Trump ads are all very basic and low budget, with the candidate talking about an issue full-face to the camera, a bit of upbeat music at the beginning and end, and the occasional graphic to illustrate his points. It is not clear if Trump is even using a teleprompter, because he is often speaking in sentence fragments and rambling from one topic to another, which is quite an accomplishment in 30 seconds.

What’s strange about Trump’s ads is that, when reduced to a transcript they are almost incoherent, but as oral speech, they do make a point. Here’s a verbatim example: “so important is our Second Amendment, the politicians are chipping away at it day by day night by night, it gets weaker and weaker. We’re not going to let it happen. We are going to protect our Second Amendment. If I’m President you can count on it one hundred percent.” Actually this ad reads like blank verse, or even haiku.

Trumps ads are almost all about issues, and there are very few that tell his personal story, other than, for example, assertions that he’s been a successful businessman and knows all about creating jobs. When he becomes the nominee, it will be interesting to see whether his ads use better production and messaging techniques. And it will be interesting to see his attack ads on Hillary Clinton. I did watch one of his attack ads on Marco Rubio and it was almost the sort of parody of an attack ad you could imagine seeing on Saturday Night Live: dark colors, creepy music, sick-making pictures of Rubio, a loud narrator, and outlandish accusations.

Hillary Clinton’s ads are much more professional. They show here speaking in many contexts, often surrounded by supporters, and with much more lively moving images than Trump’s. Many more of the ads deal with her own history, both in terms of her family of origin, and in terms of her involvement in politics from the Deep South in the Seventies, to the White House in the Nineties, and then the Senate, and the State Department. The ads involve a much wider range of issues than Trump’s. Some ads are narrated by politicians who support Clinton, and others focus on the challenges faced by particular individuals (extortionate prescription drug prices) and her efforts to remedy the problem (criticism of Valeant Pharmaceutical). And, despite her disclaimers that she is not a “natural politician,” the ads show her as both engaged and relaxed. Nevertheless, they generally have surprisingly low viewcounts and high ratios of dislikes to likes.

These are immediate first impressions. I’ll have much more to say in the coming months as my research assistant and I get down to our codebooks, and then our Excel spreadsheets, and we begin to draw some conclusions about strategy and tactics.

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