tell it straight? the advantages and dangers of parody

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. Our posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from the specific evaluations. Join CIRCLE for an ongoing discussion of the posts using the hashtag #ChangeTheDialogue, as well as a live chat on Tuesday, June 25th at 2pm ET/1pm CT/11am PT.

Parody is powerful. Scholarly papers by Young Mie Kim and John Vishak, Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, Amy Becker, Michael Xenos, Xiaoxia Cao, and others have found that late-night comedy influences viewers’ political belief and attitudes. Presumably, parody works by motivating viewers to pay attention (when they might tune out less amusing material) and by provoking strong emotions, such as disdain for the person being parodied. In turn, those basic emotional framings strongly affect how people collect and interpret factual information. A parody can also spread “virally” if people enjoy it and choose to share it. The popularity of shows like the Colbert Report demonstrates the appeal of satire.

The challenge is that some people do not get the joke. For example, Flackcheck produced a parody video entitled “Could Lincoln be Elected Today?” that purported to be a television ad from the 1864 election. Its purpose was to teach viewers to shun deceptive advertising from real, modern campaigns.

Other experiments seem to suggest that these parodies were just as effective at informing viewers as more traditional fact check articles found at places like

However, we found that substantial numbers of people did not understand the parodic purpose of this video. Two-thirds (67.4%) of all respondents thought that it was reminiscent of real campaign ads shown today. That was the intention of the parody, and two-thirds “got” it-but the remaining one third did not.

Three quarters (76.2%) thought that the Lincoln video was deceptive in that it would have been unfair to compare President Lincoln to Benedict Arnold, as the video did. Again, that means that most of the respondents understood and agreed with the premise of the video. But about one quarter did not.

A few thought that Lincoln is overrated; they were pleased that the video would reduce his popularity, which they took to be its intent. About two percent of the respondents saw a partisan purpose to the video, e.g., “Well done video. An obviously very pro Obama video,” or “This video was obviously made by left wing nuts.”

Some other responses:

“It was disrespectful to our 16th President. Negative ads should be banned from all government elections”

“I think it was stupid and who ever used it, or if it was used, should never hold an office in this country and the public should have been outraged.”

“Anyone who believed this video was and is a traitor to the USA.”

Overall, we can conclude that most people understood the video, but there was substantial “leakage” in the form of people who missed its parodic intent, thought that it was fair to compare Lincoln to Benedict Arnold, were furious at it, or otherwise drew the wrong message from it.

Anyone working to educate the public about politics in a nonpartisan way faces a choice. Very straightforward messages may come across as boring or preachy and may not be viewed willingly, let alone shared. Funny messages spread further, but a significant proportion of the recipients miss the point–and they may be the very people who would most benefit from a deeper insight into politics and public affairs.

This post is cross-posted on the Democracy Fund blog. Stay tuned for more analysis in the upcoming weeks. The previous entries in the series can be accessed at:

  1. Educating Voters in a Time of Political Polarization
  2. Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry
  3. How to Reach a Large Scale with High Quality Messages
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.