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The Benefits of Political Advertising, Redux

- January 14, 2008

Consider these findings, which describe trends from 1952-2000:

1) Americans’ news consumption declined.

2) News coverage of policy issues during presidential campaigns declined.

3) When voters were asked what they liked and disliked about the presidential candidates, the number of policy-related mentions increased, but the number of character mentions decreased.

4) The relationship between policy likes and dislikes and the vote decision grew stronger, while the relationship between personality likes and dislikes and the vote decision grew weaker.

So, how is the American public able to focus on policy given their growing inattention to increasingly superficial media coverage?

bq. We assess the role of education, party polarization, and paid advertising in explaining trends in Americans’ political knowledge and engagement. We show that the public’s steady level of information and increased focus on policy in presidential politics reflects the high level of policy content in paid ads, which have compensated for the shift of news coverage toward candidate character, scandal, and the horse race.

The findings and the explanation are from a recent paper (gated here, ungated here) by Martin Gilens, Lynn Vavreck, and Martin Cohen — which buttresses other evidence discussed in these posts.

All of this evidence points to a counterintuitive conclusion: voters aren’t as superficial, and campaigns aren’t as bad, as people think they are. Moreover, one of the most maligned parts of campaigns — paid advertising — is beneficial.

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