Maybe you’ve seen commercials on TV for one of the presidential candidates. President Barack Obama is running for reelection, and he and his opponent, Mitt Romney, are spending lots of money to broadcast commercials to voters. They hope that the ads will convince people to vote for them on Election Day, just as a toy company or cereal maker hopes you’ll buy their product after watching their ads.

READ: Why are debates important?

QUIZ: Could you be president?

In fact, political ads are a lot like other TV commercials. But there are a few differences. For one thing, many of the political ads are negative. That is, they tell you something bad about the other candidate rather than saying something positive about the candidate who placed the ad. It’s as if a toy company had an ad telling you not to buy another company’s toy because it breaks.

Are these ads fair?

Some people think it’s wrong to advertise this way, especially if an ad says something mean or even untrue about a competitor. But candidates can say almost anything they want in ads, even if they stretch the truth or exaggerate.

Candidates have been saying negative things about each other for a very long time. One famous commercial put on by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 suggested that if his opponent became president, he might start a war that would destroy the world!

This year, there are more campaign ads on TV than ever before. President Obama, the Democratic nominee, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the Republican, have raised millions of dollars from their supporters to pay for their ad campaigns. But they’re not the only ones advertising. The Republican Party is buying ads to help Romney, while the Democratic Party is helping Obama. A few other groups have formed just to run ads for or against a candidate.

A new ad that is getting a lot of attention is all about Big Bird and “Sesame Street.” During the first debate, Romney said he would cut government funding for educational shows including “Sesame Street.” The Obama campaign quickly made an ad making fun of Romney’s statement, saying that a president should worry about issues bigger than Big Bird.

Some people feel too much money is being spent to run too many ads. But others say everyone has the right to advertise as much as they want.

What’s a ‘swing’ state?

One of the interesting things about all these ads is that many voters won’t ever see them. Almost all of the commercials are airing in about eight states, not the whole country. The states with lots of advertising are known as “swing” states because the race is so close in them that it could swing in either direction on November 6, Election Day. The candidates don’t spend much money on commercials in states where they know they’ll win or lose by a lot of votes.

One of the swing states this year is Virginia. That’s why people who live in the Washington area have been seeing a lot of political commercials. The ads are aimed at voters who live in Northern Virginia. But people who live nearby also see them, because Washington’s TV stations broadcast to Virginia, Maryland and Washington.

The candidates also advertise on radio, in newspapers and on the Internet. But TV gets most of the attention. This is because a lot of voters who still don’t know for whom they will vote are watching TV and are likely to see the ads. Who knows? Maybe watching a few more commercials will help them make up their minds. That’s what the candidates hope, anyway!

ACTIVITY: Make your own political ads

READ MORE: Other election stories for kids, teachers

— Paul Farhi