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.
Lauren James couldn’t strike the image from her mind.
“It made my skin crawl,” the University of Akron student 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 memorable 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,” she said.
Ohioans are upset
The experiment, launched in April, signaled the start of an eight-month reporting and research collaborative involving Ohio’s major media news organizations led by the Akron Beacon Journal, 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.
In a 2012 civility project in Akron led by the newspaper, faith community and university, people in the community delivered a clear message: They detested the political rhetoric and felt helpless.
This year’s Your Vote Ohio effort is statewide and includes experimental solutions leading up to the General Election.
“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.”
The people in Kennedy’s first round of tests were mostly primary-election voters contacted by the Beacon Journal and a few marketing students, among them James and Gaynesbloom.
They arrived on the top floor of a downtown UA building where students study marketing and advertising.
The negativity vexes voters.
“Everything I read says negative ads work,” griped Sally Taylor, another test subject. “But I hate them.”
“I think it puts [voters] off,” Hower said. “And more than likely it makes them not want to vote. I think that’s the intent in some cases.”
Whether negative ads suppress votes is debatable. But if it works on the presidential race, it affects voting for others in the party who also are on the ticket, such as congressional and state legislative candidate.
The effect is alarming. Polling shows that in the past 50 years the majority of Americans have flipped from optimistic to pessimistic when asked about their sense of effectiveness in elections.
Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center this election cycle show a bipartisan majority of Americans think elected officials are out-of-touch and that, when asked to cite any reason, undue influence from special interest groups ranked as their No. 1 problem. A survey of Ohio’s congressional candidates, published Sunday, shows reluctance by congressional candidates to offer solutions.
Can’t we be nice?
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how divisive our political system is and how wonderful it would be to lift each other up,” said Kathy Harris, another participant in the UA study. “I feel like we’re really punitive in our society.”
As a voter, Harris said she’s “defenseless” against the ads.
“They take a single nugget of truth and stretch it and distort it. I think it’s disturbing how easily people are influenced,” she said.
Searching for the source of voter antipathy, journalists in the news collaborative consistently heard residents talk of a series of 2010 Supreme Court rulings that removed campaign contribution caps for labor unions and corporations. The rulings gave rise to Super PACs, funded by the rich and corporations. These groups sponsored one percent of ads in 2012 and more than two-thirds so far this election cycle, according to the body of work produced by watchdog journalists and academic researchers at the Wesleyan Media Project, the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Responsive Politics and the Campaign Finance institute, among others.
Attack early and often
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.
As a swing state, its voters may decide which party controls the White House and Senate.
Research shows Super PAC spending is overwhelmingly negative, attacking rather than supporting candidates or issues.
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 — no more than three or four supporting any one candidate — 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 “Lyin’” neck or the Benghazi dead speaking from the grave.
One 22-year-old who watched the ads for the first time ever said: “I don’t like it when people get aggressive and push their opinions on other people. … They need to push other people down to get themselves up.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug.