Test subjects respond negatively to negative ads

Researchers measuring how brains respond to political advertising.

This story is a product of the Ohio Media Project, which includes the Dayton Daily News and more than a dozen newspapers, radio and television stations. See Tuesday’s newspaper to find out the type of information campaigns are gathering on voters and go to myDaytonDailyNews.com for Sunday’s story on the money outside groups are spending to influence how Ohioans vote.

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Most of the participants wore a complex set of headphones with moistened tentacles reaching into their hair, touching their scalp. Tiny sensors measured brain waves.

A long, narrow bar sat below the computer screen in front of them, watching the movement of their eyes.

This was a test — an effort to determine if, and how deeply, political advertising affects people.

There was little doubt when all was done.

“It made my skin crawl,” University of Akron student Lauren James told Kathleen Kennedy, a researcher who showed the student a series of political advertisements, including a photo of a half-naked Melania Trump tweeted by Ted Cruz supporters.

Another person was struck by a video sponsored by the National Rifle Association depicting an unarmed woman with a burglar lurking outside her window. Many others remembered that one, too. As the ad began, they leaned forward in frightful suspense, then when it was clearly a political ad, they leaned back.

Another ad, underwritten by the Stop Hillary PAC, showed faces of Americans killed in Benghazi with a paid narrator taking the liberty of speaking for them.

“They all seem pretty negative,” said Pauline Gaynesbloom, another student, who struggled to remember the upbeat ads.

“I feel that if, as a country, we’re always attacking each other, nothing is ever going to get done.”

‘I hate them’

The experiment, launched in April, signaled the start of an eight-month reporting and research collaborative involving the Dayton Daily News and several other Ohio news organizations, the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at UA and the non-partisan Jefferson Center, a civic engagement non-profit from St. Paul, Minn.

Most Americans escape the onslaught of political attack advertisements that are inescapable in Ohio. The state generally ranks in the top three for money spent on advertising, and this year it may lead the country.

“It’s going to be a long presidential election,” said Rod Hower, 50, a Green resident and first-round participant in Kennedy’s ad experiment, which is helping to shape subsequent testing.

Hower has created an intuitive test of his own, one that accurately predicts who’s behind the ad.

“Well,” he said, “if it’s a negative ad, it’s some kind of super PAC.”

A story in this newspaper Sunday showed how outside groups, unleashed by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that lifted the cap on outside spending, have changed the tone of political campaigning. Since the ruling, those groups have spent about $1.2 billion on state and national races, and more than 70 percent of that advertising has been negative.

Through the collaborative, the news organizations are hoping to put the concerns of voters squarely in front of the campaigns and identify what changes need to be made.

Attack ads for the 2016 election began in Ohio in the summer of 2015, leaving little doubt that mega-donors, political operatives and campaigns are planning again to spend record money trying to unnerve Ohioans.

Sally Taylor, one of the test subjects in the Akron study, says she assumes negative ads work, “but I hate them.”

“I think it puts [voters] off,” said Hower. “And more than likely it makes them not want to vote. I think that’s the intent in some cases.”

‘There was a heightened response’

Pondering the early results of her experiment, Kennedy drew some preliminary conclusions.

“There was a heightened response,” the researcher and lecturer said, noting that pupil dilation and brain activity suggested much higher emotional responses to political ads, rather than the typical product ad.

And the 16 participants in the first round reached a consensus on which ads had gone too far: a half-naked Melania Trump, a digitally rendered Pinocchio nose coiling around Sen. Ted Cruz’s neck — an ad produced by the pro-John Kasich super PAC, New Day for America — or the Benghazi dead speaking from the grave.

“They take a single nugget of truth and stretch it and distort it,” one of the participants, Kathy Harris, said about the ads. “I think it’s disturbing how easily people are influenced.”