In a paper for Political Psychology, Ronald Friedman and Barbara Sutton wonder if the ads for high-priced goods that accompany articles about death, destruction, and poverty in newspapers like the New York Times affect the way readers think about the events in those articles:
In times of war, news media coverage of the plight of civilian casualties plays a critical role in shaping attitudes regarding war's human costs. We proposed that these attitudes may also be surreptitiously influenced by the commercial advertisements that often accompany this coverage. Specifically, we hypothesized that when newspaper articles pertaining to civilian victims of war are flanked by luxury ads, conservatives, relative to liberals, will subsequently exhibit less concern for these victims. This proposition was based on the notion that commercial ads, particularly those promoting luxury items, make salient the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and thereby, at least implicitly, threaten the legitimacy of the current socioeconomic system. Drawing upon system justification theory, we posited that this threat would lead individuals with stronger system-justification tendencies (conservatives), relative to those more open to challenging the current system (liberals), to show greater tolerance for civilian war casualties in order to defend the system's integrity. Evidence consistent with this hypothesis was found in a quasi-experimental study (n?=?329).
The idea that conservatives will see a an ad for Omega watches and subconciously stop caring about civilians in Afghanistan seems a little cartoonish. And the question the researchers use to measure the effect -- how many civilian casualties the reader would be willing to tolerate to avoid defeat in Afghanistan -- seems to me like it avoids a number of questions about the nature of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. It's conceivable that readers could consider a certain number of civilian casualties acceptable to prevent greater suffering at the hands of the Taliban, for instance.
But the main question of the article, whether the visual context in which readers consume news primes them to perceive events in a certain way, seems like a reasonable and interesting one. There's probably room for more research as news moves online as well. Do those "One weird trick to eliminate belly fat" ads affect the way we read articles about Syrian refugees or North Korean nuclear reactors? Do you read an article differently if it comes up in your Facebook news feed between your friends' baby photos and status updates than you would on a newspaper website?
Of course, as a member of the profession, I should note that without these ads we wouldn't have the articles in the first place. So please, purveyors of expensive shoes, watches, dresses, and condos, continue warping our perceptions of reality.
War of Ideas is a blog on the theory behind the practice of global politics. Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua E. Keating brings you the latest research, data, and intellectual debates from around the world.