When it comes to campaign ads, there’s a lot to be wary of.

Not only do they interrupt favorite TV shows, sneak into social feeds and infiltrate dinner conversations, but they can also be misleading or false.

We at The Fact Checker are here to help.

The Facts

Campaign videos weren’t always part of presidential cycles. When only 9 percent of Americans had televisions in 1950, commercials weren’t a top priority for candidates. But as television sets began to pop up in homes across the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower saw an opportunity for his 1952 bid for the presidency. He met with legendary advertiser Rosser Reeves, who persuaded him to make short ads for television. Eisenhower did so, begrudgingly.

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“The ads that were run are pretty primitive,” Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz said. “I mean they’re cartoonish, they’re jingles.”

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Eisenhower and his opponents in 1952 and 1956 mostly ran video testimonials or speeches. The creative ones featured cartoons. It wasn’t until a small girl picking daises in a 1964 ad for Lyndon B. Johnson did political advertising change.

“This was the mold-breaker of all political campaign ads,” Balz said.

The 1964 “Peace, Little Girl” ad starts with a child picking daisies. As she plucks petals from her flower, she counts to 10. When she reaches 10, a male voice begins a countdown. The shot zooms into the girl’s eye until, BOOM. A nuclear bomb explodes.

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“They didn’t mention Barry Goldwater’s name, but it basically suggests that if Barry Goldwater was elected, there’ll be a nuclear apocalypse and all the little children in the world will die,” Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler said.

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“It opened the way for negative advertising,” Balz said.

Now we’ve all seen an attack ad. Doom and gloom images, ominous music, and a deep voice saying the stakes are too high to vote for the other candidate. But there are other themes to be aware of as well.

“If a Republican is attacking a Democrat, they’re probably going to claim the person will raise your taxes or has raised your taxes,” Kessler said. “If it’s a Democrat attacking a Republican, they’re probably going to claim that this person wants to privatize Social Security or destroy Medicare.”

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And if it’s an incumbent running, their ads will encourage voters to stay the course — especially if the economy is good — while challengers will preach change.

“The Bush campaign both in 2000 and in 2004 had to do a counterintuitive messaging,” Balz said. “In 2000, the economy was quite good, so in essence their message had to be things are good, time for a change. Which is you know totally contradictory. In 2004, Bush was far less popular because of the Iraq War. And yet what they needed to do was to say you may be unhappy but let’s stay the course.”

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So we know how television changed campaigning and the anatomy of an attack ad, but what happened when the Internet came along?

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“As editing and technology becomes more sophisticated, it’s easier than ever to make people look like they’re saying something that they never even said in the first place,” Washington Post senior producer and co-creator of the Fact Checker’s guide to manipulated video Nadine Ajaka said.

These sophisticated techniques have the potential to usher in a new, even more sinister era of attack ads.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the threat that’s posed by fake or misleading video is pretty real. It’s not hard to manipulate a video or doctor a video. And it’s also not hard to have it reach millions of people,” Ajaka said.

But even if we’re bombarded with misleading videos, does it influence our voting behavior?

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“It’s possible that some do, but the evidence that many do or the evidence that most do is pretty hard to come by,” George Washington University assistant professor Ethan Porter said.

While it might be the case that campaign advertising can make people emotionally react to a video, there’s no “powerful evidence” that the reaction then translates to a change in their vote, Porter said.

When someone says that one ad caused this candidate to win or lose, be skeptical.

“To believe that, you need to believe that holding everything else constant, just that one ad was enough to cause people to change their mind either at the ballot box or to change your mind about whether or not they would turn out,” Porter said. “That’s a tall order. It’s not impossible, but it does require skepticism.”

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So while you’re watching campaign ads this election cycle, keep these three things in mind.

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  • Is there a possibility that a politician’s sound bite has been taken out of context and that it’s maybe not the full truth?
  • Ads are trying to convey a particular message. Does this one square with your general perception of the candidate? If not, do some research.
  • Check the source. Campaign ads make references to sources, but some are more legitimate than others.

And if you’re still stumped, send it to us and we’ll check it out.

(The video above is part of a YouTube series from The Fact Checker. To catch up on past episodes and not miss future ones, subscribe here.)

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