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Campaign Ads as Multivitamins for Politically Undernourished Citizens

- December 5, 2007

In a previous post, I pointed to Franz, Freedman, Goldstein, and Ridout’s Campaign Advertising and American Democracy as an important new contribution to our understanding of political campaigns, and indicated that I would be following up with a consideration of some of its key findings.

First, though, it seems appropriate to lay out the book’s basic argument, which builds upon a simple metaphor:

bq. Given the gap between the dictates of democratic theory and the realities of democratic citizenship, and given the content and packaging of most campaign commercials, campaign ads serve as vital information supplements; they enable people, in the absence of necessary information or sufficient motivation, to make reasonable electoral decisions. In a democratic sense, campaign ads can help sustain the body politic, keeping it healthier than it might otherwise become. But just as the biological body cannot survive on multivitamins alone, citizenship requires more than thirty-second supplements. In order for democracy to flourish, citizens need a more balanced diet of information, opinion, and discussion. Our argument is not that campaign ads are all citizens need … — far from it. Rather, we claim that thirty-second spots do little harm and some real good when it comes to political nutrition.

Now a bit of elaboration.

The authors share Thomas Patterson’s low regard for news coverage of political campaigns (“a barrier between the candidates and the voters rather than a bridge connecting them”). By enabling parties and candidates to communicate directly with potential voters rather than indirectly through the filter of news reports, campaign ads “represent important informational supplements, enhancing the otherwise impoverished political diet of the American citizen.”

This supplementation stems from two key characteristics of campaign ads: that they are “rich in informational content” and “convey information in an efficient, easily digestible way.” Modern campaign ads skillfully meld text, images, and music to convey a simple message — “that the favored candidate is, in some substantive way, closer to the viewer than his or her opponent.” To communicate that message of proximity, ads pack a great deal of information into a small container. Their message is rich not only informationally but also emotionally, and by their emotionality they can influence citizens’ sense of involvement in a campaign. Even attack ads, which are generally held to be the bane of American democracy, produce these beneficial spillover effects, for even though they can be mean-spirited, most of them deal with policy issues and eschew personal attacks or mudslinging — thereby boosting the informational and emotional content of campaign discourse in ways that contribute to, rather than detract from, citizen participation in the electoral process.

That’s it in a nutshell (or, I suppose, a vitamin pill).

The authors of Campaign Advertising and American Democracy are by no means alone in offering a revisionist account of modern campaigns. Their basic argument is familiar in many respects, though it also provides some new perspectives on a much-discussed set of issues. The book’s real contribution, though, seems to me to be on the empirical side, in the form of its compilation of interesting new research findings, to which I’ll turn in the next installment of these reading notes.