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Illustrations by Joel Holland.  Ever feel that a politician is talking down to you? There might be a reason why. Our analysis of 24 TV ads produced by the Scott Walker and Mary Burke gubernatorial campaigns found that both speak to listeners at a junior high – and even elementary school – level. Using the […]


Illustrations by Joel Holland. 

Ever feel that a politician is talking down to you? There might be a reason why. Our analysis of 24 TV ads produced by the Scott Walker and Mary Burke gubernatorial campaigns found that both speak to listeners at a junior high – and even elementary school – level. Using the tools at readability-score.com, we calculated the “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level,” a common linguistic measure, of the words and sentences employed, a figure corresponding roughly to school grades. Burke’s attack ads scored the lowest with an index of 4.7. Her positive advertising scored much higher, 7.9, and her own lines, if isolated across all nine spots falling between March and late September, averaged a 6, about the reading level of a middle school student.

Gov. Scott Walker scored lower on his positive ads (4.9), and averaged just a 5.8 across all of the 15 ads we studied, which aired from March to September. Burke’s commercials, if taken as one large group, scored a bit lower, 5.1, and Walker’s lines, if tested in isolation, came in at 5.8, simple sentences about jobs, Wisconsin, “workin’” and reforms. Walker’s attack ads used the phrase “Jim Doyle’s commerce secretary” a total of four times, and Burke’s repeated “dead last in the Midwest” as often, in reference to a measure of job growth.

Of the Burke ads we analyzed, about two-thirds contained safety goggles, with an additional eight pairs appearing in a web-only ad not included in our grade level calculations. Walker’s footage was notable for lighting the left, and most thickly haired, side of his head.

Finally, we generated word clouds using transcripts of both campaigns’ ads – vocabulary still up for debate, if you’re reading this before Nov. 4.

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