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Presidential Ads Don’t Impress, Students Say

By Nirvi Shah — August 31, 2012 2 min read
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St. Petersburg, Fla.

In Evy Fernandez’s social studies classes at Dixie Hollins High School here on Thursday, students had the same experience—some might call it torture—that anyone watching television without a DVR faces for the next two months: seeing lots and lots of political ads.

But with the nearby Republican National Convention wrapping up, Fernandez said she couldn’t resist a lesson on the fact, fiction, and fuzziness of presidential television spots.

I sat in as her women’s studies class dissected some of these ads Thursday morning, the last day of the convention, looking for facts, opinions, and whether the messages appealed to them.

Students may not be paying close attention to the election, Fernandez said, but messages in the ads, true or not, “stick with them.” And when Americans vote, “we pretty much go by the ads.”

Dixie Hollins, with about 1,800 students, is made up mostly of white students from working-class families, Principal Dan Evans told me. While at first students in the class seemed quiet about the messages in the ads they watched—it was REALLY early in the morning, at least for me—they soon became very vocal about their opinions.

One ad, in particular, got the room charged up: this spot from Planned Parenthood denouncing Mitt Romney. Women’s rights under a President Romney would diminish, the ad says. (All but one of the students in this women’s studies class were women.)

“He’s a guy; he doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a girl. How could he take away our rights?” said Hailey Livi, a junior.

They also watched a campaign ad for President Barack Obama about Romney’s financial background, which referred to offshore accounts and accused him of sending jobs overseas in his roles as a businessman and as governor of Massachusetts. It was all set to Romney’s rendition of “America the Beautiful.” One student quickly chimed in with her take.

“Fact,” Brittany Sian said, “Romney cannot sing.”

Aside from that, the ad didn’t really do Obama any favors, said Mariah Moushon, a sophomore, although it did make Romney look un-American, greedy, and selfish, Hailey said.

Then there was this ad in which former President Bill Clinton defines Obama as the clear choice for president.

Fernandez reminded me that the 15-, 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds in her class were just babies during the Clinton administration, and some have only vague memories of 9/11.

“Maybe,” sophomore Katie Payne said, “Bush is the one who screwed things up.”

The students were unimpressed by the new Republican mantra “We Built It,” featured in this ad. There were theories that the featured small business owner is related to Romney, for example.

Junior Heather Garoffolo picked up on one detail political strategists may be delighted to hear: the ad uses the word “demonizing.”

“That reaches out to religious people,” she said.

Although for some, sitting through 90 minutes of watching campaign ads might be a turnoff, the discussion was inspiring for senior Christina Dorn, one of the few students who will be old enough to vote come November.

“Ms. Fernandez,” she asked, “is it too late for me to register to vote?”

UPDATE: Fernandez emailed me Sep. 6 to say that Christina registered to vote this week.

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