The 2-3/4 minute video above takes you on a walk-through of the nonpartisan experiential exhibition “I Approve this Message: Decoding Political Ads” launched by HonestAds with The Toledo Museum of Art during 2016.  The exhibit was created to bring you into-the-know so that you’ll never look at political campaigning in quite the same way again.  Winner of numerous awards, the exhibit is currently being updated for 2020 and adding new elements that relate to the impact of new media on election outcomes.

For more information contact: hbalkind@HonestAds.org


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No doubt, you made a fact-based, purely rational decision as to who you would support for president.   Actually . . . that’s not likely.

Over the past two decades neuroscientists, psychologists, and political behaviorists have recognized that we feel before we think . . . that we are predisposed to our political choices . . . and that we make decisions on emotional levels that are below our own awareness.*  No, we can’t be directed like robots, but we can be influenced and, ultimately, persuaded in ways we may not be comfortable acknowledging.

Think about the your major life choices.  While listing the pros and cons of the car you purchased, the home you bought, the person you married, the school you or you children attended, inevitably, the final decision was made based on your “feelings.”

Marketers have long known this; some politicians are just catching up.  Fear, anger, hope, pride – pulling at the heartstrings is far more compelling than a list of statistics or complex detail.  You’ll see this played out in the advertising running throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.

To help, there are the rationality-defying creative tools of audio, visual and motion. These result in the patriotic or anxiety-inducing music; the carefully selected imagery; the unflattering camera angles of the opponent.  Also cueing your emotions are six techniques that are meant to move you persuasively — over to their side.

  1. Association

Association links the candidate to something or someone you emotionally connect with from personal experience.   The association may be negative, like putting opposing candidate X in the same image as bad person Y;  or it may be positive, images of all the young people who have benefited from Z policy.

  1. Confusion

Confusion ignores the real concern and replaces, juxtaposes or makes inferences so you are distracted from the original concrete issue.   Candidates may confuse you about their own stands or confuse you about those of their opponents.

  1. Contrast

Contrast uses opposing elements to clarify and drive a point home based on actual or perceived differences.   The contrast can be real or it can be deceptive, for example, taking words or photos out of context or simply comparing non-existing facts.

  1. Omission

Omission ignores the key parts of a story that weaken the candidate’s case and, sometimes, even adds unrelated information to strengthen it.

  1. Repetition

Repetition is showing and saying the same thing over and over again so that it becomes “sticky,” gaining traction and becoming believable over time or quickly over the Internet.  Repetition increases impact and aids memorability.

  1. Transformation

Transformation uses all the creative tools in the visual and audio arsenal to alter a person, situation, comment, or image so that it is changed to seem like something it actually is not.   This is used sometimes not-so-subtly by the candidates and to the outrageous ultimate in political parody ads.

This is not to suggest tuning out the politicians’ ads.  The ads can be educational and provide important information that you may need or want to know.  Watch them.  But beware. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that political advertising is governed by First Amendment free speech, making it legal to lie in national political advertising.

If you mix deception with the persuasive emotional tools and techniques at the politicians’ disposal, you are up against a powerful combination – one that can truly challenge every voter’s objectivity . . . including your own.


* Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking. Fast and Slow”; neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, author of “Self Comes to Mind” and “Constructing the Conscious Brain”; political scientists and authors Ted Brader, “Campaigning for Hearts and Minds”; Milton Lodge and Charles S. Taber, “The Rationalizing Voter”.  Persuasive techniques informed by literature professor Hugh Rank, NCTE Committee on Public Doublespeak Intensify/Downplay Schema.



New York City:   So … you think you vote with your head?  Tackling this question is a thought-provoking non-partisan exhibit – I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE:  Decoding Political Ads — which opened July 14, 2016 at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, and ran through Election Day, November 8thThe goal is to bring viewers into-the-know about the persuasive techniques of political advertising so that they never watch political ads in the same way again.  The plan is for the exhibit to travel to other museums and institutions prior to the next national election.  With its modular video and digital makeup, the exhibit has flexibility for spaces of any size or configuration.

The exhibit showcases more than 50 of the most emotional ads from 1952, when political ads first started running on TV, up to today.  It includes:

  • 4 individual theaters, FEAR, ANGER, PRIDE, HOPE, displaying ads one-after-another.
  • A MOOD ROOM dares visitors not to feel emotion in a V-shaped theater with 9’ high screens awash with dramatic imagery cut to expressive audio.
  • 17 seven ft. high, annotated ads with frame-by-frame persuasive techniques called-out.
  • A CHANGE theater, demonstrating how targeted messaging and media have changed with the times.
  • A TIMELINE along a 50 ft. wall shows the evolution of political ads organized by news events, advertising and politics, laws and political spending, and technology.
  • I-CANDIDATE and ADMAKER let viewers put what they learned into practice as they create their own ads.
  • VISUAL LITERACY iconography helps viewers understand how to identify read and understand images – whether in art or in advertising.

Visitors are introduced to the imagery, music, sound effects, camerawork, words, and phrases that are used to stir the heartstrings and capture their vote, and they actually experience how rational decision-making is often overridden by emotions.

According to the co-curators, Harriett Levin Balkind, founder of HonestAds.org, and Adam Levine, assistant director of the Toledo Museum of Art: “This exhibition is grounded in studies conducted over the past 20 years that show we feel before we think; facts don’t change minds; and we vote based on emotion rather than issues. Political ads are consciously constructed to evoke specific emotions in viewers. The ad-makers know that our hearts rule our heads.  Here you see how it’s done.”

“Our goal is to increase visual literacy as it relates to advertising,” explains Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art. Visual literacy is the ability to read, comprehend and write visual language – or the ability to identify, read and understand images and their sometimes covert or culturally influenced meanings. This exhibition looks at all the tools used by political advertising to induce particular emotions.”

The nonpartisan exhibition is organized by the Toledo Museum of Art and HonestAds who commissioned Thinc Design as the exhibition design firm and JET Design for the video installation.

CONTACT:  Harriett Levin Balkind, hbalkind@HonestAds.org, 917-774-4999 (cell

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Based in New York, HonestAds builds awareness about political advertising in innovative, compelling ways with organizations that care about political literacy and through its website HonestAds.org. HonestAds’ purpose is to decrease deception, increase critical thinking and expand civility; thereby, motivating more people to vote. As a nonpartisan nonprofit, HonestAds has no connection to political parties, candidates, PACs, super PACs or their sponsors.

On 36 park-like acres the Toledo Museum of Art is known for its internationally significant art collection and acclaimed architecture with spectacular buildings from two Pritzker Prize-winning architects and their Main Museum with a Greek Ionic façade.  It’s metro-wide community support and engagement is second only to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It has garnered national media praise and won travel awards as a not-to-be-missed destination.  It is a nonprofit arts institution.

Located in New York, Thinc Design is a leading design firm serving clients in North America, Asia, Africa and Europe. For more than 20 years, Thinc has designed projects for a wide range of institutions, including museums, science centers, aquariums, zoos, theme parks, corporations and governments. Notable projects include the American Food 2.0. USA Pavilion, 2015 World Expo; exhibition design for the Smithsonian Institution; the National Sept. 11 Memorial Museum; and the California Academy of Sciences.

The Exhibit’s Mood Room video environment was designed and produced by JET Design, from Brooklyn, NY. JET was founded by video installation designer, Jason Tschantré, and the Mood Room was created in collaboration with independent filmmaker Scott Foley, and audio design team, The End. JET Design creates immersive audio-visual spaces for Museums, Theater, Musical Performances, and Live Events.

Toledo, Ohio, is in a swing county, Lucas, in a swing state, where in 2012 more women (66%); more non-Hispanic blacks (72%) and more Ohioans (68.3%) voted than the national average.

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