Tombras School Professor Eric Haley’s Research Addresses Improving Political Advertising Literacy
As local elections are nearing in parts of Tennessee, including Knoxville, and the next presidential election is a year away, voters are being inundated with political advertising about various campaigns and ballot issues. Understanding politics is a difficult task that becomes even more complicated for the average voter when they’re deluged with unregulated political advertising in traditional and social media avenues. That’s why Professor Eric Haley teamed up with Professor Michelle Nelson and other researchers from the University of Illinois in 2020 to study how to help people better evaluate messages in political advertising.
“My motivation is to do something about the spread of disinformation. We cannot be a functioning democracy if we don’t have valid information on which to make decisions. Polluted information equals a polluted governmental system,” said Haley, who is the DeForrest Jackson Professor at the Tombras School for Advertising and Public Relations.
Political advertising is an important tool for democracy, Haley said, as the United States of America is a very large country and there must be a conduit for information about important topics and campaigns to keep voters informed. Because the First Amendment heavily protects expressions of political speech—a right Haley said is essential to a democracy—it leaves room for misuse of advertising.
“It’s pretty important that we don’t have the government deciding what is appropriate political debate. The problem is, you have some people who use that freedom ethically, but because there aren’t strict guardrails, it allows other people to abuse it,” he said.
Realizing that educating voters about all political issues is a gargantuan task that cannot be solved by research alone, Haley and his colleagues set their sights on improving political advertising literacy. Their research over the past three years revealed that even educated voters were unaware of the ins-and-outs of political advertising, such as its lack of regulation, how it is financed, and who is funding political communications.
“We did some studies to narrow down what information about political ads voters agree that knowing would make them more careful users of political information,” he said.
The team created an educational website called Political Advertising Literacy that highlights main areas of knowledge to assist voters in how they assess political communications. This site includes an informative video, a “test your political advertising knowledge” quiz, and additional resources.
Haley said the information provided revolves around three main points:
- Political advertising is not regulated, fact-checked, or verified. It can be false or intentionally misleading.
- Political advertising can be funded by organizations that behave as front groups hiding behind attractive names but are financially sponsored by large lobbying groups or corporations.
- Anyone, anywhere, can create political advertising content on social media.
“What we’re doing is tough, because we realize the value of ethical and truthful political advertising in a country as large as the US, so we don’t want people to dismiss it, but we also know there’s plenty of people out there using this environment in unethical ways. So how do we help people see through the mud?” Haley said.
The video and site encourage people to stop and question information in political advertising, such as who might be behind it or if it creates feelings of outrage; a good indicator that political advertising may be false or misleading if its main goal is to manufacture outrage or negative feelings, he said. Voters should always question the motives of political advertising and try to investigate who funded or disseminated it; in short, if there’s any doubt about the purpose of an ad, just stop and don’t share it, Haley said.
“We’ve documented through our studies that people appreciate the information in the video and other materials and feel it empowers them to deal with political communication better; and specifically, it makes them pause before automatically sharing information,” he said.
Now that the website and information is in place, Haley said the next obstacle is widely disseminating these valuable educational tools. So, if you’re reading this and would like your fellow voters to be as savvy as you are now about political advertising, take a moment to share the site with them!