James' Capstone

A story about a story about Political Attack Ads.

Westminster College’s Drinko Center tries to enhance students collegiate experience through a myriad of ways including K-12 Outreach, Undergraduate Research, Language and Science in Motion, and Model United Nations.  The Drinko Center also focuses on Service-Learning.  The Drinko Center lists a lot of benefits of Service-Learning.  Here they are according to their website.

Benefits of Service-Learning

  • Real-world experience helps with career exploration, skill-building, resume-building and networking
  • Involvement with important concerns helps students understand issues, builds their passions, and gives them skills
  • Applying abstract concepts or theories to real situations helps students understand course concepts and ask valuable questions
  • Improves self-efficacy
  • Students become more civically engaged.

For my documentary, I’d like to focus on the last bullet—Students become more civically engaged.

A lot of older folks would contest that the my generation, the millennial generation if you will, are not as civically engaged as their generation, the baby-boomers were. 

And there is some truth to that, the millennial generation didn’t have the 60s and 70s.  We didn’t have Vietnam—


 The Civil Rights movement—


didn’t have JFK, RFK, and MLK all killed while we were growing up.

We weren’t able to witness this—


and this—


But we did experience this—


and this—


Yes the millennial generation has grown up during an age of war and terrorism, yet we seem to be politically apathetic to older generations. 

Yet our generation came out in record-breaking numbers not once, but twice to vote this man into office.


Our generation has seen the dawn of Super PACs and overwhelmingly negative advertisements.  Many young folks simply associate political campaigns with attack ads.  Many feel disenchanted by the whole campaign process.

How my documentary connects to service-learning is helping to make students more civically engaged and to prove to older generations that the millennial generation isn’t as apathetic as they may think.

Using music in my documentary is an interesting decision.  Usually music only enhances a picture and helps tells the narrative (if used correctly of course).  I’m not sure if my documentary really calls for music.  With the story heavily relying on dialogue and the campaign commercials, I don’t think using music adds a whole lot to the story.  That being said, once we’re in post-production and if it seems kind of dead without music, I’m not against throwing in some tunes.

Ever since McCain and Palin hit the campaign trail in ‘08 landing Sarah Palin in my hometown of Erie, PA I’ve fallen in love with politics.  Now don’t confuse that for falling in love with Palin…After I saw Palin mudslinging then candidate Obama to raucous cheers from the crowd, I realized that something’s messed up in politics.  Voters seem to vote for who they like less, who they disagree with more, who they can’t stand.  Voters don’t seem to vote for who they like more, whose policies positively affect them, who they love.  I think negative campaign advertisements are apart of the problem.  Ads like this and this show that candidates would rather tear down their opponent than build themselves up.  The election in ‘08 and the Supreme Court decision allowing unchecked spending by Political Action Committees were the biggest events in choosing dirty politics and their effects on voters.

During the planning and subsequent filming of a documentary there are bumps in the road that you’re forced to navigate.  I had multiple people drop out of the project—an expert, multiple participants, and almostme. However, my adviser Dr. Smithey kept my head up, and suggested that I change the format of my film to make it more feasible.  She said, “There are capstones that are perfect and capstones that get done”, meaning nobody’s capstone is perfect, but you have to make adjustments to make it a reality.

That being said, I believe the format switch from individual interviews to a larger focus group setting will make it not only feasible but a better documentary/experiment fostering better results. 

So as long as I encounter no more large bumps in the road, this documentary is going full speed ahead.

Dr. Smithey is one of my advisers on this weird journey of a capstone documentary.  We met earlier this week to discuss the progress of my documentary.  She advised rather than having three individual voters as I was planning, to have a couple focus groups and show one group positive ads, and the other negative ads.  This advice opened up some problems and some solutions.  We will meet again in the near future to discuss progress made on gathering focus groups, and she’s in the process of contacting friends of her in political campaigns.

Dr. Smithey is an associate professor of Political Science at Westminster College.  She’s been at the college since 2003.

The film festival I’ll submit my documentary to is Spirit Quest Film Fest in Edinboro, PA.

  • Details from their website:

The Spirit Quest Film Festival was founded in January of 2009, in order to bring thought provoking, entertaining and uplifting works of cinema to our audiences in Northwestern Pennsylvania.
Created and maintained by film festival veterans with deep ties within the industry, we hope to provide our selected filmmakers with the exposure and attention they deserve for all of their hard work.
Spirit Quest will feature three days of independent film screenings from around the world (including several produced right here in the Erie County region of Pennsylvania), with themes focusing on the human experience.
Dramas, documentaries, comedies, animation, music videos, experimental pieces and more will be shown over the weekend of our event.
The Spirit Quest Film Festival takes place Spring 2013 at The Frank G. Pogue Center on the campus of Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pa. (USA).

  • I chose this film festival because of its focus on thought provoking films (which I hope on my documentary being one) and its proximity to my home in Erie, PA.

Every project, whether it be a scholarly paper, a novel, a play, or a film, starts with research.  My research started with political guru Drew Westen (pictured above) and his Los Angeles Times article "Why attack ads? Because they work."

This article nailed down what exactly my documentary topic would be.  Westen’s article purports that voters are affected by negative political advertisements subconsciously. 

But unconsciously, our brains are highly reactive to threat — especially when, as in the case of an ad, the threat isn’t immediately countered or refuted. A well-crafted positive ad can “stick” too, but there’s nothing like a sinister portrayal of a greedy, self-centered villain, replete with grainy images and menacing music, to stir up our unconscious minds.

This idea is what my documentary aims to uncover.  I will attempt to reveal whether my participants are affected by negative attack ads are whether it is inconsequential.

Here’s an example of an attack ad I’ll be showing.

President Obama vs. Governor Romney 

In 2008 the United States Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting campaign funding from corporations and unions.  This in effect created Political Action Committees or Super PACs.  Super PACs now make large contributions to political candidates.  A portion of this money helps make negative campaign ads.  This documentary will investigate the effects negative campaign ads makes on voters in the 2012 presidential election.

Read More