The U.S. election season is longer than any of its democratic counterparts’ around the globe. But this year has seen a category of political advertising that some experts believe is unique to the times: ads produced by third-party organizations aiming to discourage conservative voters from reelecting Republican incumbent President Donald Trump.
While these ads have been widely shared online and through targeted TV buys around the country, experts are split on how effective they are in changing voter behavior. Some of the spots may appeal to a conservative outlook, but others might be more effective at mobilizing left-leaning volunteers than actually winning hearts and minds.
The Lincoln Project, one of the leading sources of such advertisements, was created by a group of current and former Republicans with the goal of “defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box,” the founders wrote in The New York Times when the organization launched at the end of 2019. “We must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character,” they continued.
Over the past nine months, the group has released dozens of video advertisements attacking Trump, his character and his record. Most center on urging Americans to vote against the president and politicians who support him. The Lincoln Project didn’t respond to requests for comment by time of publication.
Sukki Yoon, a professor of marketing at Bryant University, studies how consumer behavior changes according to political leanings. Using the framework of his research from the last few years, he said that the way the Lincoln Project has framed many of its ads in a conservative outlook.
Win America Back PAC, which was founded in August by three Hollywood film producers, doesn’t approach the same segment of voters as successfully, according to Yoon. The PAC aims to create “simple, clear, cinematic ads that cut through Trump’s fog of disinformation and restore the clarity of reality,” according to their mission statement.
The PAC was responsible for one anti-Trump ad that went viral last week, with more than 4 million views on Twitter as of publication: a 90-second spot that framed the election as a job interview. It was only the second ad released by the organization, which dropped three more on Sunday, two days before the election, one of which has gotten more than 37,000 views.
Liberals and conservatives “tend to process persuasive messages in fundamentally different ways,” said Yoon. Through his research, he has observed and written about this in two ways. Similar to a nature versus nurture argument, conservatives are more likely to respond to a message that uses an internal explanation for a person’s actions. For example, “a person is bad” and committed a crime, as opposed to attributing the actions to the person’s surroundings, he said.
Second, Yoon said that conservatives respond better to “why” arguments, which focus on the desirability of the thing being advertised. Liberals, on the other hand, respond better to “how” arguments, which focus on the feasibility of the thing being advertised.
With that framework in mind, Yoon said that the Lincoln Project’s ads that paint Trump “as a bad person, as opposed to a person who committed a bad act,” are more likely to resonate with conservatives than an ad that simply lists his actions, as Win America Back’s job interview spot does.