The Use of Background Music in Political Advertising

June 19, 2016

Most of us see dozens, if not hundreds, of political ads on television (and increasingly online) each election year. The majority of these ads seem to blend together in our minds; few stand out.  Yet the creators of these ads sometimes spend days, if not weeks, making decisions about even the smallest details of the ad’s production.[i] Should a man or woman do the voiceover? What color should the background be?  Should the ad feature music, and if so, what kind?

This essay focuses in on the last question, reporting on a systematic analysis of almost 700 ads that aired during the 2012 presidential campaign. These include ads sponsored by the political parties, by the candidates’ campaigns and by interest groups. The Wesleyan Media Project, which I co-direct with Erika Franklin Fowler (Wesleyan University) and Michael Franz (Bowdoin College), codes each ad that airs in presidential, U.S. House and U.S. Senate races on a variety of factors, including the style of music employed in the ad. Coders, as a rule, are not experts in music but have a layperson’s knowledge, and thus we only ask them to categorize musical styles into a few broad genres. Coders are given five choices: no music, ominous/tense music, uplifting music, sad/sorrowful music and other. Coders who chose “other” are given the option of describing the music themselves. Each hypertext link provided in this essay gives an example of the music type.

The most basic finding was that the majority of political ads in 2012 did have background music, as Table 1 shows. Only 2.6 percent did not contain background music. The music styles used were quite varied. In just over 44 percent of the ads, the music was described by coders as ominous/tense, while the music in 40.5 percent of the ads was described as uplifting. Another 21.9 percent of the ads had sad or sorrowful music. Coders classified the music in 6.7 percent of the ads as falling outside these three major categories. When asked to describe the music in these “other” categories, the most common response was “mellow” (six ads). Other ads were described as employing silly, whimsical or comical music. One notable example falling into this “other” category was the Obama campaign ad “Firms,” which featured audio of Mitt Romney singing “America the Beautiful” off key. As Romney’ sings, newspaper headlines speaking to Romney’s outsourcing of American jobs overseas flash on the screen.


As an aside, the distribution of music styles found in U.S. House and U.S. Senate races was very similar.

Table 1: Music Style in Advertising

no music 2.6%
ominous/tense 44.1%
uplifting 40.5%
sad/sorrowful 21.9%
other music 6.7%

Of course, the style of music employed in an ad varies with the tone of the ad as well. Scholars typically divide ads into three types based on their tone.[ii] Positive or promotional ads speak only of the favored candidate, negative (or attack) ads speak only of the opposition candidate, and contrast (or comparative) ads speak of both. A typical contrast ad might, for instance, describe how one candidate has raised your taxes while the opponent—the favored candidate—wants to lower your taxes. 

Table 2 shows that among positive ads, 77 percent feature uplifting music. The use of uplifting music creates positive associations with the featured candidate in the mind of voters—and more generally puts the viewer in a positive mood. “American Comeback,” which was aired by Tim Pawlenty in the Republican primary race in 2012 and features footage of the U.S. hockey team defeating the Soviet Union in 1980, is a good example of an ad that employs uplifting music.   

“American Comeback”

About 11 percent of positive ads contain ominous/tense music, such as the Romney ad titled “The Right Answer,” which talks about burgeoning federal budget deficits. Ominous music, then, does not necessarily imply that the ad is negative. Ominous music will sometimes be employed to alert the viewer to a status quo situation that needs to be fixed. Just over 6 percent of positive ads contain sad/sorrowful music. One example of such an ad is “Way of Life,” which features a coal miner, who is worried about being out of a job, endorsing Romney.

“The Right Answer”
“Way of Life”

Among negative ads, though, just 6.8 percent feature uplifting music, while the majority (54.4 percent) have a musical background that is ominous and tense. Contrast ads, as one might expect, fall in the middle, with 45.3 percent of these ads featuring uplifting music and 35.3 percent featuring ominous and tense music.

Table 2: Music Style by Ad Tone

Positive Contrast Negative
no music 1.1% 1.3% 3.0%
ominous/tense 10.7% 35.3% 54.4%
uplifting 77.0% 45.3% 6.8%
sad/sorrowful 6.2% 14.2% 28.1%
other 5.1% 3.9% 7.7%

One other characteristic coded by the Wesleyan Media Project is whether the ad contains an image of a flag. About 38 percent of ads did, and the music employed in these ads was quite a bit different from the music used in ads without a flag. Table 3 shows, for instance, that the music was described as uplifting in 53.8 percent of the ads that contained a flag but was described as such in only 31 percent of the ads without a flag. Music was also more likely to be ominous or tense in those ads without a flag than in those ads with a flag.    

The American flag, of course, is a powerful symbol for most Americans, one with the ability to create a positive emotional response. That may be especially true when it is combined with uplifting music. Candidates employing the flag must hope that the uplift it provides to the viewer will rub off onto the viewer’s perception of them. 

Table 3: Music Style by Presence of Flag

Flag No Flag
no music 2.9% 2.4%
ominous/tense 39.8% 47.4%
uplifting 53.8% 30.7%
sad/sorrowful 19.4% 23.8%
other music 5.4% 7.7%

Although viewers seldom give any attention to the background music in a political ad, it is nonetheless an important element. As I have shown here, musical styles are deployed strategically and work in conjunction with other elements of the ad, such as the ad’s tone (whether it contains attacks or not) and the use of specific images, such as the American flag.  Music can help to create a mood and can lead to specific emotional reactions on the part of viewers, which, in turn, can help to facilitate political persuasion.[1] In addition to persuading, music may also encourage people to turn out to support a favored candidate. It might be obvious that uplifting music can encourage voters to turn out and participate, but even ominous or tense music may encourage participation, as such music may alert viewers to a status quo that needs to be changed.

– Travis Ridout, Wesleyan Media Project

Ads cited:

“Stand Up to China,” Mitt Romney,

“American Comeback,” Tim Pawlenty,

“Lazy,” Rick Perry,

“Wonderful,” Barack Obama,

“Mosaic,” Barack Obama,

“Firms,” Barack Obama,

“The Right Answer,” Mitt Romney,

“Way of Life,” Mitt Romney,

[i] See Trax on the Trail’s interview with political consultant John Balduzzi.

[ii] Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Paul Waldman, and Susan Sherr, “Eliminate the negative? Categories of Analysis for Political Advertisements,” in Crowded Airwaves: Campaign Advertising in Elections, ed. James A. Thurber, Candice J. Nelson, and David A. Dulio (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 44–64.

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