This summary, by Kathleen Searles, is based on new research just published in the journal Political Communication
Is Don Draper Making Political Ads? — AMC’s popular period drama, “Mad Men,” is set in a fictional 1960s advertising agency where ad executives attempt to sell happiness to America’s beleaguered housewives. While a lot has changed since Don Draper’s days on Madison Avenue, one aspect hasn’t: men’s voices are still the overwhelming choice when it comes to voiceover narration in political advertising. Male voice-overs outnumbered female voice-overs two to one in the 2010 and 2012 congressional campaigns. Sixty three percent of ads that featured an announcer were voiced by men, while only 28 percent featured a woman (about nine percent contained both).
Men’s voices still dominate advertising. Yet, in research I recently published in the journal Political Communication with my co-authors Patricia Strach, Katherine Zuber, Erika Franklin Fowler and Travis Ridout, we find that campaigns choose the sex of the voice-over strategically, taking into account candidate characteristics, ad tone, and gender stereotypes associated with the issues. Still, they could do a better job.
To understand the role of voice-over gender in campaign advertisements, we examined more than 7,000 unique ads aired in the 2010 and 2012 U.S. Congressional elections tracked by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) and coded by the Wesleyan Media Project as well as survey data from Ace Metrix, a commercial firm that tested most ads from the 2012 presidential campaign.
In line with gender stereotypes, we find that:
(1) Female voice-overs were more likely when the issue discussed in the ad is feminine, such as healthcare and education, while males were more likely to voice ads discussing masculine issues such as oil dependence and Wall Street. This is unsurprising given that our individual-level data reveal that women find ads featuring women’s voices more credible when the issue is either feminine or non-gendered.
(2) Women voice-overs were more commonly used for negative and contrast ads, perhaps in efforts to avoid a backlash.
(3) Women’s voices were also more common when the ad was focused on the personal rather than policy. This corresponds to research that demonstrates women candidates receive less issue coverage and more trait coverage than their male colleagues.
Yet, our findings also challenge conventional campaign wisdom in that:
(1) Male candidates were more likely to use a woman’s voice than female candidates, and
(2) Republicans were more likely to use a woman’s voice than their Democratic peers.
(3) Relatedly, the use of women’s voices was more common when the state or district is increasingly Democratic, suggesting that both the partisan identity of the candidate and the electorate were taken into consideration when campaigns make choices about voice-over gender.
(4) Here, however, campaign strategy differs from empirical reality as additional survey data we collected suggest that Democrats did not perceive women’s voices to be significantly more credible than did Republicans.
Campaigns also took into account audience, airing their ads with female voice-overs during shows with a high proportion of women viewers. Targeting women viewers with ads that feature women’s voices was a wise choice as we also find that women perceived such ads to be more credible than do men.
Altogether, despite the dominant use of men’s voices in campaign ads, women’s voices were more credible when ad issues are feminine or non-gendered, and when the target audience was made up of women. While Republicans were more likely to use women to voice ads, they do not necessarily gain a credibility edge. Broadly, our research shows that campaigns make strategic choices about voice-over gender that influence credibility, in turn, affecting their chances at electoral success.
Read the full paper: Strach, Patricia, Katherine Zuber, Erika Franklin Fowler, Travis Ridout and Kathleen Searles. 2015. “In a Different Voice? Explaining the Use of Men and Women as Voiceover Announcers in Political Advertising.” Political Communication 32(2).
Kathleen Searles is an Assistant Professor of Political Communication at Louisiana State University. Her interests include news media, campaign advertising, and political psychology. Specifically, her research examines the content of partisan news, poll coverage, and the influence of emotional campaign ads on political behavior. She has published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Research Quarterly, Political Communication, and Political Psychology among others.