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How to read a Political Ad: Look for the biases in the visuals

For the politician using visuals, the message is clear: you can get right to people’s quick response mode by playing off their biases in an instant with the right visual message. Political advertising, from the crudest roadway signs with simply a candidates name to sophisticated 2 minute commercials spread though mainstream media and targeted social media all count on your response to what you see, and which of your biases can be triggered with the visual. Here’s a quick primer on how to read a political ad, employing critical thinking and visual thinking.

Critical Thinking - How to read a political Ad

It’s all about the Biases! How to Read a Political Ad, visually. Graphic Recording scribed by Dean Meyers on Aug 10, 2020 at the Monday Morning #HI Webchat, hosted by Dan Manning of

Critical Thinking really does need to include self-observation and understanding one’s own visual thinking: how you recognize, understand beyond the surface of what you are looking at, note your emotional response and strive to understand intent behind how the image was made to appear.

Does that sound complicated? We do it those things quite naturally, and even the least sophisticated politician innately knows what’s going to strike the audience, what will potentially have the most emotional effect, and, hopefully the power to sway the undecided.

Political Ads, really are no different than ads for commercial products and services, public service ads, and the common posts influencers use on Instagram. We do not tend to rely on critical thinking for everything, we save that for the “big decisions”, often meaning that which is necessary for survival or, (supposedly) for the pathway to success. But how often do we check ourselves for these particular cognitive biases as we scroll through our feeds on social media, drive to work (if we still drive to work), ride an elevator in a building with a screen to entertain us for the 20 second ride?

  1. Availability Bias: looking at signage, what’s the largest thing we see? (what was the last thing we recall seeing?)
  2. In-Group Bias: the classic “echo chamber”, where we trust or prefer that which is most like us, in thinking, appearance, etc.
  3. Fear-Based Bias: what triggers fear in us, and therefore we are driven to respond to protect ourselves, such as ads that provoke a fearful future if we do NOT vote for the candidate who says they can protect us?
  4. Status-Quo Bias: “He may be bad, but he’s all ours” “We voted for him last time, even though he’s doing a poor job, but he’s already there and why change things…maybe he’ll get a chance to fix it after all”.
  5. Greyscale Bias: this is truly a VISUAL THINKING – based bias, where we have stronger positive feelings for images (particularly of people) that are in full color rather than greyscale. Additionally, photography of people will make us feel closer to them than other media (drawing, paintings, etc). We just want to stay away from the “uncanny valley” effect, where it looks so realistic and yet not “alive”, or look “robotic” and unreal: that makes us very uneasy and lowers our trust.

And, therefore, it’s valuable to look once, think twice, and consider how you defend yourself from being swayed against political advertising messages (even from the ones from candidates you like!).

Dan Manning, who hosted this conversation on his WebChat Monday Morning #HI, suggests we consider the following:

  1. Ask, what VALUES are being promoted in political ads, and where do you stand regarding those values?
  2. WHO would be influenced by the ad you are seeing? Are you responding to your own In-group Bias, perhaps?
  3. Why were YOU targeted, particularly on Social Media, where advertising is pinpointed based on demographics, personality preferences, social issue alignment and other deep ways of targeting people that locks into various biases.

NOTE: this graphic recording was created to capture the conversation from the Monday Morning #HI on August 10, 2020 by Dean Meyers.


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