Research in Progress: Effects of narrative video political ads on voter attitudes

June 18, 2019

Jeff Conlin and Guolan Yang

By Jeff Conlin and Guolan Yang, Penn State Ph.D. candidates

What do honoring women warriors, spurring local business growth and spotting “Big Foot” in corporate America have in common?

Well, not much. Except these topics were among the most popular political video storylines of advertisements that ran during the 2018 midterm elections. In today’s fragmented and polarized media environment, a well-crafted story may hold unique abilities to convince voters who otherwise might not be influenced to support or oppose a candidate. “Narrative persuasion” is the area of communication science that considers how the strategic development of stories can elicit this type of change. 

The research is important since, during the 2018 midterm election season, American voters were inundated at historic levels with political advertisements through TV, computers and mobile devices.

Since the early 1950s, narrative video advertisements have been an essential communication tool for U.S. political candidates, and today have taken on near-cinematic quality. Ads can bolster a candidate’s ideas and voting record on an issue or attack an opponent by spotlighting their flaws.

Narratives are also unique from other forms of communication such as rhetorical or fact-based arguments for their ability to present real or fictional (as in the case of Big Foot) experiences of individuals and characters, as well as plot structure. These features increase the entertainment value for viewers and work in concert to “pull” them into storylines, make empathic connections with characters, suspend disbelief and deliver other emotions about the experience.

With our Arthur W. Page Center grant, we are excited to examine the cognitive-emotional-behavioral effects of actual narrative video political advertisements that were used by candidates to persuade voters about their issue positions during the midterm elections. Stories that were shared with voters were used as persuasion tactics for candidates to stand out on issues such as healthcare, taxes and jobs and immigration. Through the research, we will experimentally test different narrative video ads across campaign issues and parties. Our aim is to determine the extent to which cognitive and affective processes lead to more or less narrative persuasion.

We will look retroactively at several campaigns from the senatorial and gubernatorial races of last fall and examine participants’ emotional and cognitive responses to a series of ads. We will also incorporate behavioral measures such as intentions to support related national policy or time spent searching for national healthcare, economic or immigration information on websites. Other factors such as sponsor source, whether the ad was produced for TV or social media, and the length of ads will be part of our analysis.

Political advertising can play a powerful role in winning or losing elections, and in influencing American democracy. Our research is intended to not only aid advertisers in considering these effects, but also to help audiences better understand candidates’ strategic use of narratives in shaping voter attitudes.

Since not all ads elicit similar effects, understanding the nuanced roles that different narratives can play in unique political contexts will help to identify the boundary conditions and extent to which they can affect voters. We look forward to getting the study underway and sharing our findings.

For more information on this study, email Conlin at or Yang at Results from the project will be available next year. This study is a part of the Center's 2019 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grants call for research proposals focusing on narratives in communications.