Super Tuesday is nigh, and if you watch TV the old-fashioned way (with commercials), candidate ads are as common as (and mimicked in) pitches for airlines, beer and upcoming films. As tempting as it is to turn the volume down during ad time, I urge you, dear reader, to pay attention to who’s talking. It turns out that a standout in political ad strategery is the use of male versus female narrators.
Several years ago, a team of researchers looked into differences in how male and female Congressional candidates presented themselves in campaign ads — for example, whether the ad cited sources (like newspapers), the ad setting, or thematic differences conveyed by the appearance of, say, children, law enforcement officers or the candidate’s relatives. The team was surprised to find that there really weren’t gender-related idiosyncrasies.
“We thought that maybe men would do this and women would do that,” Patricia Strach, an expert in social and political behavior at the University at Albany, State University of New York, told me. “But there just aren’t differences in the way that men and women run. They all run as candidates.”
Then, a couple of years ago, Strach and her colleagues decided to look specifically at voiceovers in campaign ads. They tapped into the thousands of political ads archived at the Wesleyan Media Project, which are tagged with data including the date,time, market, station, and television show during which the ad aired. The Media Project also codes each ad with content-related data, such as the ad’s tone (negative, for example), music, issues discussed and the gender of the narrator in voiceovers. For a subset of the ads, the team also had data from more than 80,000 respondents asked to evaluate various ads’ credibility.
And here the researchers did find gender-related differences. The analysis of political ads from the 2012 and 2010 U.S. Congressional elections, published last year in Political Communication, revealed that the choice of narrator in campaign ads indeed reflect gender stereotypes associated with various issues. (Shocker, I know.) The research also revealed that while a female narrator voiceover is perceived as more credible in certain contexts, campaigns ads overwhelmingly use male voiceovers to convey their message.
“It’s this weird paradox,” says Strach. Their initial look into different campaign styles of men and women candidates had found nothing. “But in the voiceovers there was this overwhelming difference. Men’s voices dominate. Yet there’s no good reason for this. In fact, in certain contexts, a women’s voice is more effective.”
Based on previous scholarship, the researchers had generated some working hypotheses. For example, given stereotypes about men being assertive and women being compassionate, ads addressing traditional “feminine” issues, such as education, child care and reproductive rights, might be seen as more credible if voiced by a women, whereas ads about “masculine” issues such as national defense, the economy and foreign policy should be voiced by men. (Considering the thorniness of assigning gender to an issue, the team used Pew Research Center data in which men and women were asked rank issues in order of importance, to categorize each issue.)
And, in fact, ads discussing feminine issues were more likely to be voiced by women and masculine issues by men. Women’s voices were also more likely to be used for contrast ads (this candidate does x, but I do y) and negative ads, perhaps to soften the attack and avoid backlash, the team speculates.
Contrary to their expectations, the researchers found that Republican candidates were more likely to use a woman’s voice than Democrats. Male candidates were also more likely to use a woman’s voice in ads than female candidates, choices that might reflect a strategic effort to give candidates broader appeal.
The biggest surprise however, was that despite their well-oiled machinery, political campaigns don’t make voiceover choices as effectively as they could. There was an overwhelming use of male narrators: In ads using voiceovers, male voices outnumbered female voices by more than 2 to 1. Yet when the researchers look at effectiveness, respondents were more swayed by ads using female voices when the issue was “feminine” AND when the issue was neutral.
My unofficial survey suggests these trends still hold in the current race: Listen to this Ted Cruz ad bashing Trump’s Planned Parenthood record, or this Jeb Bush ad suggesting it’s manly to stand up to Trump. (It’s harder to apply the metrics to the Democratic ads. The candidates tend to do their own talking and Hillary and Bernie are both n=1 in their own special way: Hilary has serious foreign policy chops, for example, and Bernie has made economic issues the center of his platform.)
So if you’re a campaign strategist choosing a narrator, don’t to be so quick to default to a male voice. If you’re a voter, don’t just scrutinize the imagery in advertising; pay attention to the more subtle ways that campaigns and interest groups might be trying to play you.
And even if you’re a cynic like me, keep in mind that political advertising can be a force for good. There’s a lot of evidence that campaign advertising is crucial in informing the electorate, says study coauthor Erika Franklin-Fowler, who also directs the Wesleyan Media Project. “Advertising that provides information on candidate positions and policies — especially ads that may scare the electorate a little — helps to convey that something important is at stake,” Franklin-Fowler told me. “This may lead citizens to go out and seek more information, which is important.”