Summer Class on Political Ads Ends with Students Making their Own

Aug. 17, 2007 -- After studying political advertisements for four weeks this summer, students in one University of Virginia summer class took a stab at making their own.
For the final project in politics professor Paul Freedman's class on "Campaign Advertising and American Democracy," students used photos, video, music and narration to produce a 30- or 60-second television ad for a real or imagined candidate for any office. The ads addressed a mix of lighthearted and serious topics. Samir Patel made an ad decrying President George W. Bush's record heading into the 2004 elections. Brendan Burdette's ad spoke to the remote island population of the TV show, "Lost," advocating that they choose the show's character, Jack Shephard, rather than "convicted con-artist" James 'Sawyer' Ford as their leader in their struggle against "the Others."
Rising fourth-year economics major Kojo Ayirebi, originally from Ghana in West Africa, created a pair of ads to demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate images in political advertising. Ayirebi made the two ads using almost identical sets of images of American soldiers in both ads. But, by using different colors, music and narration, one ad conveyed a positive message while the other conveyed a negative take on the sacrifices made by American soldiers fighting in Iraq.
"I was impressed with how hard the students worked and how much they learned," said Freedman. "Some of these students clearly have careers in politics or advertising ahead of them."
The students were excited about the assignment. "Making an ad sounded much more fun than writing a long paper, and it was something I could share over the Internet with my friends," Patel said. "My favorite aspect of the project was that I had the freedom do whatever I wanted."
Craig Orndorff said it was fun to be able to pay homage to the great ads of the past. "There are few assignments I've done here at U.Va. that I'm prouder of than these ads," he said.
While making her ad, Andrea Goetchius realized "that I knew more of the material than I gave myself credit for. When you are brainstorming and using funny material, you talk about the terms without even knowing it. You are studying and really absorbing because you don't have the pressure of an exam or paper."
The class and the assignment impacted the students in a variety of ways. This was Ayirebi's first-ever class on politics, and he looks forward to taking another. Orndorff, having already worked on political campaigns, said that the final project sparked a greater interest in political advertising. Goetchius hopes to double major in politics and marketing.
Patel learned the importance of ads appealing to emotions. "I made sure not to repeat the mistakes of Kerry and Dukakis, both of whom emphasized facts and specific policies in their attack ads without playing to emotion. That’s why they lost."
But Patel was disillusioned with the emotional manipulation at work in many ads, including his own, for which his goal was to persuade viewers to blame President Bush for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, soldiers suffering in Iraq and Osama Bin Laden still being at large — though he doesn't consider Bush responsible for those things. "I hate my ad. I hate when politicians play to our emotions in order to promote their agenda," he said. "This is something that Bush did successfully in his first six years as president. In the utopian political environment we would judge our politicians based on their record and facts, but unfortunately the typical American voter is most susceptible to emotional appeals."
But Patel also felt strongly that powerful images of war, death and suffering should be shared with the public. "I hate how politicians have made it their agenda to make us think we shouldn’t be looking at pictures like these," said Patel. "If we look at the hard pictures and hear the hard stories — in context, not in an ad — maybe we’d actually be more determined to hold our politicians accountable for their actions."
"Although this ad was fun to make," he said, "I don’t think I’ll ever work in campaign advertising or any form of advertising. I can’t see myself making a living
off of tricking, manipulating and deceiving people."
Goetchius drew a much different conclusion from her experience. "It takes a while to get it perfect," she said, "but when it's done you really feel like you have accomplished something."