Students Test Their Powers of Persuasion on Gun Control

It’s not easy to change people’s minds on political issues.

That’s one of the lessons Professor Diana Mutz hopes to impart to the undergraduates in her Media and Politics class. It’s even harder still when your tool for persuasion is a 30-second video.

As a final project, Mutz tasked her class to choose a major national issue — in the wake of so many horrific mass shootings, they chose gun control — and then work in teams of two to produce short video ads that might change Americans’ opinions on a large scale. [Scroll down to watch the ads.]

While each of the eight teams favored gun control, not all of the messages necessarily reflect the students’ personal beliefs. Rather, they used polling data to identify parts of the electorate that seem more open to change, and then applied the various persuasion techniques they had learned in class to tailor the message to those demographics.

For example, one team targeted conservatives who may not be open to Federal background checks for a gun purchase, but might be willing to consider background checks performed by local authorities.

After watching each others’ videos and presentations describing the thinking behind them, Mutz’s students then attempted to predict which would be most effective. In the real world, this kind of intuition-based judgement often dictates which advertising teams get hired for the task.

Those who are correct receive extra credit, but the exercise also helps Mutz drive home the lesson of how difficult it is to make such predictions in the absence of evidence.  “Nonetheless, a huge amount of money is spent on communication campaigns in the absence of any evidence that they actually work,” Mutz noted.

To learn how they might assess the ads’ actual effectiveness, the students designed a series of polling questions to assess gun control attitudes, and these measures allowed them to evaluate whether the ads were effective, and which were the most effective.

Using funds from her Samuel A. Stouffer Endowed Chair, Mutz hired a polling firm to test the videos on a national sample of respondents online. Participants saw either one of the class ads, or a control video which had nothing to do with gun control.

Mutz found that the students did an excellent job coming up with novel ideas on how to change opinions about a very deep-seated issue among Americans. 

“They set a difficult bar for themselves, to be sure,” she says. “Gun control attitudes have not changed much at all, even in the wake of some horrific incidents of past gun violence.  It will be surprising if 30 second ads can have an impact.”

Want to take a guess yourself about which were most effective? Watch the videos below, and you’ll find the results at the very bottom of this post!

Zach Fox C'17 and Spencer Winson C'16


Dia Sotiropoulou C'17 and Jackie Dworkin C'17

FINAL VERSION Dia Sotiropoulou and Jackie Dworkin Persuasive Ad

Matthew Mantica C'16 and Brandon Slotkin C'16

Media and Politics Project

Molly Rooney C'16 and Ariela Boillat C'16

Comm 404 Molly and Ariela

Alex Metzman C'16 and Max Levy C'17

Alex Metzman and Max Levy Gun Control Advertisement

Nick Buchta C'17 and Riely Steele C'16

COMM 404 Ad

Lauren Feiner C'17 and Paola Ruano C'17

Lauren and Paola revised video

Carlos Diaz C'16 and Barry Johnson C'17

COMM 404 - Carlos and Barry Gun Control

So which of the ads were effective at changing respondents' feelings about gun control?

Just three of the eight videos produced a statistically significant response in the audience tested - those by Lauren Feiner and Paola Ruano, Molly Rooney and Ariela Boillat, and Zach Fox/Spencer Winson. Even those that were effective, Mutz points out, created very small effects on a five point scale.  Changing people's minds on a divisive issue is a major challenge!