Patterns of Ad Deception

  • submit to reddit identifies below 12 recurrent deceptive techniques used in political ads so far in the 2012 campaign season. Keep these in mind when a campaign ad appears on your television screen. And if you’re skeptical of what you see, visit, or the Washington Post’s Fact Checker for a truth-audit.

A TV ad by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action includes an older Mitt Romney's head photoshopped on to the body of his younger self.

1. Deceptive Audio
The sounds that we hear both contextualize what we see and cue our emotional responses. Consider the impact of a patriotic song, a cheering crowd or a mother’s lullaby. Now replace those sounds with clashing cymbals, a jeering crowd or the cries of a terrified child. By strategically inserting sound, political ad makers manipulate our responses to pictures, particularly those of their favorite candidate and his or her opponent.

Example: ‘Laughing,’ a web video by Governor Jon Huntsman (R), uses deceptive audio to make it appear that Governor Mitt Romney (R) is laughing at his own record.

2. Deceptive Dramatization
The use of dramatized scenes in ads can be a potent tool of deception. Audiences recall pictures more readily than words, and pictures tied to a dramatic narrative have a special power. Because political ad makers know that reporters are less likely to call out inferences invited by visuals, they often construct scripts containing accurate words but misleading imagery.

Example: ‘America the Beautiful,’ a web video by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, uses deceptive dramatization to attack the healthcare plan proposed by Paul Ryan (R).

3. Deceptive Framing
When two segments are edited together or two pictures are abutted, the audience naturally assumes a relationship between the two. In general, the first creates the frame used to make sense of the second. Often the second is designed to provide evidence for the first. Political ad makers often juxtapose unrelated content in ways that prompt a false conclusion.

Example: ‘King Of Bain,’ a web video by the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future, uses deceptive framing to attack Romney’s career at Bain Capital.

4. Glass House Attacks
Audiences assume that an attack indicates a distinction. But in a surprising number of instances, political ads attack an opponent for a behavior, position or vote that the attacker has made as well. Those making such attacks are like the proverbial person who lives in a glass house but nonetheless throws stones.

Example: ‘Your Side,’ a TV ad by Sen. Rick Santorum (R – PA) uses a deceptive maneuver to attack Romney’s policies.

5. Guilt By Association
Guilt by association is usually defined as “the attribution of guilt (without proof) to individuals because the people they associate with are guilty.” In political ads, pictures of the attacked are juxtaposed with pictures of someone despised by the intended audience in order to falsely assert, based on some superficial similarity, that the two are ideologically, temperamentally or biographically similar. Alternatively, these forms of visual guilt by association are used to imply that because the two individuals were once seen together or worked together in some capacity, they endorse each other’s views.

Example: ‘The French Connection,’ a TV ad by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R – GA), attacks Romney by associating him with John Kerry (D – MA).

6. Hearing What’s Not SaidIn the process of making sense of their world, humans harmonize the cues in their environment. For example, when words are superimposed on a picture of a person, we assume that they are characterizing the individual being shown. Political ad makers invite these suspect inferences, often using text credited to a respected source.

Example: ‘Blood Money,’ a TV ad by the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future, uses this deceptive technique to attack Romney’s record.

7. Misplaced Referent
Ad makers often capitalize on the potential ambiguity of pronouns such as “we,” “you” and “they” to make the audience believe that the opponent is referring to one thing when actually he or she is referring to something else entirely.

Example: ‘Romney Difference,’ a TV ad by Governor Mitt Romney, attacks President Barack Obama by implying that he’s referring to something he’s not.

8. Out of Context
By ignoring parts of a statement or the context in which a statement was made, political ad makers distort our sense of what an opponent said or meant. When a selectively edited statement is repeatedly aired, we remember it as if it actually happened in the way shown in the ad.

Example: ‘They Both Like Firing People,’ a TV ad by the third-party group Democratic National Committee, attacks Romney by taking a quote out of context.

9. Photoshopping

Photoshopping — using computer software to alter a photographic image — is a common technique that most people are aware of, but it can be easy to miss.

Example: In ‘Romney’s World View,’ a TV ad by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, a current photo of Governor Mitt Romney’s face has been pasted onto an old photo of Romney as a young executive.

10. Restrictive Definition

Politicians select language with care to ensure that we hear what they want us to hear, even if the language doesn’t reflect their candidate’s actual record. Nowhere is this axiom truer than in discussions of taxes, a word incumbents shun. The benign synonyms that result include words such as “fees” and “mandates.”

Example: ‘Right Experience,’ a TV ad by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, praises Governor Mitt Romney’s (R – MA) with false facts.

11. Seeing What’s Not Heard

A graphic image has more staying power in memory than a spoken sentence or phrase. When they conflict, pictures speak louder than words. By speaking words that are accurate while showing deceptive visuals, ad makers prompt false inferences.

Example: ‘Obama’s Wall Street,’ a TV ad by the third-party group American Future Fund, criticizes President Barack Obama (D) using false information in the visuals.

12. Visual Vilification
Visual vilification occurs when an unflattering photo of an opponent is selected to underscore an attack.

Here’s a montage: Visual Vilification

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  • Polekeep

    Well, if the all use these techniques then they’re all (or alot of ’em) just “ho’s”.  Just that the dems are a whole lot less than then the repukes. But they’re all feedin’ at the trough, no matter how much, of big business.

  • abebabe

    I love Bill Moyers. Is he the ONLY sane voice in the wilderness? 

  • Slassite

    When I was a journalism major at the University of Houston, 1966-70, we looked at a new career, political PR. Instead of working for the fifth estate we learned about how to reposition the reporter’s question…in fact, a whole new industry emerged, press manipulation i.e. how to change the question into a way to make a statement supporting the politicians position. I am now a journalism teacher at a middle school where we have our own TV production studio…not in a privileged community but deep in the Latino, low income community. Looking back, I realize, what Marshall McCluhan said: the medium is the message makes sense. Today, the fine art of manipulating the message with media, has made the pursuit of truth so diffused that truth is irrelavent. Now, and I realize truth is subjective as hard as we try to be objective, but to use the techniques listed above, makes the pursuit of some semblance of reality an illusion. A democracy needs trust in truth. I’m afraid, and I am trying to clarify this daily in my classes, truth is now suspect.

  • Zanne1504

    I can’t understand why people subject themselves to political ads. I can’t remember the last time I saw one. 

  • Bennette Reed-Dibben

    Taking things out of context and ignoring parts of a statement is 1 of my pet pees when it comes to politics. This article just shows that it’s all smoke and mirrors. The best thing for us all to do is look closely at both sides so you can hopefully dissect what they really stand for and vote your conscience. 

  • Anonymous

    Television ads are a big waste of money, the money that could be used to buy food and create jobs. Candidates could actually help people during their campaigns, not just give words and pictures without helpful deeds. I would like to vote for people who actually help people during the campaigns, and help people after they are elected. Thank you. 

  • Cy Eberhart

    The art of misconception was in place long before television. Just before the 1932 Presidential election Will Rogers wrote: Now honest did you ever read, hear or see as much bunk and apple-sauce piled into one campaign? There wasent any more truth in over one half of what any campaign so called “Orator” said. If it wasent a “Deliberate Lie,”  why it was an “Exagerated Falsehood.”

    Cy Eberhart, Humorist, Author, Lecturer

    Creator of “Will Rogers, Live!” presentations 
    Author, Will Rogers: Discovering the Soul of America and In the Presence of Humor: A Guide to the Humorous Life