Activism’s Sweet Embrace: Political Advertisements, Audiences and Interpretive Strategies


  • Joshua D. Atkinson
  • Rasfanul Hoque
  • Blessy McWan
  • Jewel White


In this project, we conducted focus groups with college students at a mid-sized university in order to examine their interpretations of different political advertisements. Our interest emerged from heightened political tensions in the United States that have led to increases in political advertisements targeting people in general, but young people and students in particular. After viewing nine different ads, students were asked a series of questions to generate discussion. Overall, these discussions provided insight concerning the interpretive strategies that were used to make sense of the ads. We found that most of the students would only interpret the campaign ads as “political,” while the others—including ads produced by activists—were interpreted as “issue ads” or “topic ads.” What is more, most of the students (but particularly those who identified as conservative) found the candidate ads to be untrustworthy, or viewed them as negative. Many of these students explained their interpretations of the candidate ads as a response to the growing negativity and partisanship that they saw in contemporary elections. Such findings hold important implications for strategic approaches to audiences—for both traditional politicians, as well as activist organizations.