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Negative Advertising – The Gift That Just Keeps On Giving

- April 24, 2008

Televised campaign ads live two lives. First, there are the paid-for showings of the ads themselves. An ad may get shown just once in a single media market or dozens of times in hundreds of markets. In recent years, thanks to data made available by the Brennan Center at NYU and the Political Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin, we’ve learned a great deal about how often these ads are shown, at what cost (though I’ll have more on that in an upcoming post), to how many people, and with what effects.

Second and, increasingly, there is free media coverage of the ads. Campaign ads, in a weird sort of “pseudo-events create new political reality” way, have transmogrified into one of the major media stories of modern gubernatorial, congressional, and presidential campaigns. To some extent, such media coverage may blunt the force of a particular ad by exposing misstatements or half-truths therein. Offsetting this blunting effect or perhaps, in many instances, overwhelming it, though, are the time-honored ideas that “There is no such thing as bad publicity” and “If you tell the Big Lie often enough, people will start to believe it.” That is, the charges and countercharges in a campaign ad may, thanks to the attendant publicity, take on a life of their own. And the ultimate test for a candidate may not prove to be whether those charges and countercharges are “right” or “wrong” (and few these days seem to be all of one or all of the other), but rather how the candidates react to them. If they do so slowly and haltingly (e.g., Kerry in 2004) or virtually not at all (e.g. Dukakis in 1988), then the attacks, having been aired by the parties and their allies and then given further prominence by media coverage, may sound a death knell for their candidacy. Letting oneself get put on the defensive seems increasingly to be taken as bona fide evidence that one is unqualified to serve in high political office.

In a forthcoming article in the Political Research Quarterly (“Free Advertising: How the Media Amplify Campaign Messages”), Travis Ridout and Glen R. Smith of Washington State University turn the spotlight on the second life of campaign ads by intensively exploring media coverage of commercials in ten of the 2004 Senate campaigns. Ridout and Smith report two basic results:

* “Ad amplification” via media coverage of paid commercials is indeed widespread. I think it’s fair to say that we already “knew” this, but having our impressions and intuitions validated via careful analysis is valuable nonetheless.

* The most media-amplified ads are the comparative and negative ones. Positive ads capture less media attention.

It’s the second result, of course, that’s really interesting. Media definitions of what is “news” encompass dimensions like conflict, drama, corruption, and malfeasance. By these and related standards, an ad proclaiming that Senator X has been voting against the public interest because of financial contributions from malevolent lobbying groups — well, that’s likely to bear looking into as a good news story. Meanwhile, an ad proclaiming that Governor Y has done an effective job of introducing some new programs and administering some existing ones — that’s no story at all. (Until, that is, Governor Y’s opponent calls those claims into question. Now, that’s news. And so it goes.)

Even if media coverage of a particular ad is critical, identifying distortions or counterpoints, it keeps the ad alive by exposing those who missed it when it aired on TV to what the candidates are saying about one another – adding fuel to the fire sparked by the ad itself and, given the media’s disproportionate focus on negative and comparative ads, thereby adding to the viciousness of this particular vicious cycle.