Gender and Framing In Political Campaign Ads

Students Research Honors Projects Examine Issues of Gender and Faith
Each fall, PPS students in the undergraduate honor seminar taught by Assistant Professor of PPS Judith Kelley conduct original research and write a thesis.  Two projects of special relevance during an election year are described here:  Gender and Framing In Political Campaign Ads by Samantha Fahrbach and Citizens of Faith and The Theory of Public Reason by Kylie Harrell.

By November, most people felt they had watched hundreds of television elections ads, but Samantha Fahrbach (PPS ’09) knows for sure she did. She sat through 700 campaign ads during a week at the archives at University of Oklahoma last summer. The marathon viewing was her primary research for her honors thesis, focused on issues of gender and framing in campaign ads.

Samantha Fahrbach in Hagan campaign Tshirt“I’d been interested in gender issues in politics since I took the course in Women as Leaders,” she said. “I wanted to see if there were differences in gender signaling in campaign ads between men and women, whether women play more into stereotypes and ‘run as women’ and if there were changes over time.”

Fahrbach focused on advertisements from campaigns for U.S. congressional seats from 1992 through 2006. She coded each ad for feminine, masculine and neutral traits in both word use and visual imagery and then analyzed the data.

In addition to working on her honors project, Fahrbach spent the fall as an intern with the senatorial campaign of Kay Hagan. “In September, Hagan was still so unknown. There was a big transformation by election day,” Fahrbach said. “It was incredibly exciting to see all our work pay off.” Hagen’s run against incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole attracted national attention, especially for Dole’s 11th-hour attack ad attempting to link Hagen with an atheist group.

“People in the campaign were furious at that ad,” said Fahrbach. The campaign responded not only with a rebuttal ad, but with literature on Hagen’s faith and church involvement for door-to-door distribution. While manning the phone bank, Fahrbach found that Dole’s ad did affect some voters, and she was able to sway some voters with the information about Hagen’s church work. Hagen went on to win the seat.

Fahrbach was drafting her thesis during election week and that work also revealed a few surprises. Contrary to her hypothesis, she found there were few differences in the ad content of female and male candidates. All candidates were more likely to establish a masculine image since 1992, which she suggests may have more to do with the political climate of an election than the gender of the candidate.

In her conclusion, Fahrbach felt she had to mention the 2008 campaign, even though she didn’t include this election’s ads in her data. Fahrbach noted that Obama emphasized inclusiveness, modesty and hope, traits that she coded as “feminine,” while Hillary Clinton highlighted toughness, experience and pragmatism, qualities on her list of “masculine” traits, but it was the candidate that used the more feminine approach that won. “Men campaigning against women is still an issue, and still touchy,” said Fahrbach “but I think I’m helping to ask the right questions.”