Political advertising is a form of political communication that uses the mass media to promote political candidates, parties, policy issues, and/or ideas. Advertising messages are generally controlled messages allowing for direct communication with the public and voters without interpretation or filtering by news media or other sources.
In the United States, where political advertising is the dominant form of communication between political candidates and voters, political advertising is a paid media form, and candidates and parties purchase airtime or space for their advertising messages directly from commercial media outlets. Since political advertising enjoys strong protection as a form of free speech/free expression under the US Constitution, there are very few regulations or restrictions on the amount of advertising that can be purchased or the content of advertising messages. In other countries political advertising, particularly on radio and television, is either prohibited or tightly controlled. Some countries allow more freedom for print advertising, and, since purchase of broadcast advertising is prohibited, candidates or parties are given free time for promotional messages. The UK and France are examples of such systems. Other countries (e.g., Germany) have a dual system, providing free time on public broadcasting outlets and allowing purchase of time on private stations.
Issues Of Form And Content
Early forms of political advertising were printed, and generally took the form of posters, signs, mailers, flyers, and brochures. Newspapers and magazines also offer important mass distribution channels. In the first half of the twentieth century, radio developed into an important advertising medium, but it was the development of television that led to the current popularity and significance of political advertising. Beginning in the United States with the first presidential campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, candidates and parties began to purchase time for political advertising on television. Since that time, televised political advertising in the United States has been an increasingly important part of every presidential campaign, and dominates the communication at almost all election levels, including state and local elections (see Jamieson 1996 for an overview of the historical evolution of political advertising in the United States).
In democracies around the world political advertising has also evolved into an important form of communication. In many countries printed forms of political advertising, such as posters and newspaper advertising, remain the most important forms of electoral communication. Some observers suggest that “American-style” televised political advertising has been spreading to other countries, but there is also evidence that these trends are more the result of professionalization and modernization of campaign techniques (Kaid & Holtz-Bacha 1995; Kaid 2006a).
Criticisms of political advertising have become a recurring aspect of politics in many democracies. In addition to complaints about the accuracy or truth of specific political ads, the most common criticisms are (1) that political spots are too short to contain meaningful information, (2) that television ads focus too much attention on the candidate’s image at the expense of issues, and (3) that political ads are too negative. Certainly political spots in the United States are quite short: the average length is now around 30 seconds, and some are surely superficial and lacking in substance. Many spots, however, can convey simple viewpoints of the candidate in 30 seconds. In most other countries, the prescribed format is somewhat longer, up to 5 minutes or longer. Research has not supported the second concern. In their analysis of the video style of presidential spots in the US, Kaid and Johnston (2001) verified that television spots focus much more heavily on issues than on image or candidate qualities. This is also true of most electoral advertising and party broadcasts in other countries (Kaid & Holtz-Bacha 1995; Kaid 2006a).
The concern about the increase in negative or attack advertising may be a valid one. Negative advertising is usually defined as advertising that attacks the opponent or opposing idea, rather than discussing the positive attributes of the sponsoring candidate, party, or issue. In the United States the amount of such negative advertising has been increasing over the past two decades, and in some recent presidential campaigns the percentage of negative ads was higher than that of positive ads. This trend toward negativity has also increased as a result of new campaign finance laws in the United States, which greatly expanded the involvement of independent groups as sponsors of political advertising. In the 2004 presidential campaign, for instance, independent groups such as the Media Fund, MoveOn.org, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and the Progress for America Voter Fund spent millions of dollars on negative political advertising.
While these trends toward negativity in US presidential elections continue, there is no evidence that the majority of electoral advertising at state and local levels is negative. There are certainly notorious examples of attack ads in races for senator, governor, or Congress, but the majority of ads are positive. This is also true of political advertising in other countries. While many countries do have some examples of attack advertising, and trends suggest that this may be increasing, most political advertising outside the United States focuses more on the positive attributes and issue positions of the sponsoring candidate or party.
Effects Of Political Advertising
The effects of political advertising are less easily and clearly documented, but some conclusions are clear. One of televised political advertising’s great advantages is that it is capable of overcoming selective exposure. Many voters only choose to expose themselves to political messages that are in line with their predispositions, making them less likely to see persuasive messages with opposing viewpoints. However, in the US political spots come in the middle of television programs, leaving voters less able to avoid those that have messages counter to their beliefs. Television ads also reach voters when their other defenses against opposing messages may be down, when they are focused on other concerns and more open to persuasion. Thus, political advertising tends to work best with voters who are uninvolved or even undecided.
Overall, there is a large body of research that provides convincing evidence that political television advertising can be effective in changing a candidate’s image and/or in affecting voting decisions about the candidate (Kaid 2004). The former effect, changes in candidate image, may go in either direction. That is, the changed effect may be an increase in positive opinions or a negative effect decreasing the image. Similar effects have been observed in many countries around the world. Some research has also tied exposure to political television ads directly to voting behaviors and electoral outcomes.
Political advertising is particularly effective in communicating issue information to voters. Exposure to political advertising often leads to increased voter knowledge. In fact, studies have shown that political advertising can be more effective at eliciting voter recall of issues than can exposure to television news (Patterson & McClure 1976) or even televised debates (Just et al. 1990).
Because negative advertising has been increasing, considerable research has been dedicated to determining the conditions under which it is effective. Some candidates and parties fear a backlash from negative advertising that might harm, instead of help, the sponsoring candidate. While a few researchers have observed such effects, the overwhelming evidence suggests that negative advertising is quite effective, with limited backlash potential. One of the reasons for this effectiveness is that the public tends to remember negative information more than positive information. Negative ads also tend to be more effective when they criticize the issue positions of the opposing candidate, rather than the personal qualities or image of the opponent.
Research also offers some good advice about how to offset the effects of negative advertising. First, it is helpful to inoculate voters against possible negative attacks. By providing counterevidence or positive candidate information first, a candidate or party decreases the possibility that later attacks will be credible. Second, once an attack has been made in a negative advertisement, the target must provide a rebuttal to the charges. If a candidate is attacked and does not respond, the public tends to believe the attack is true. American presidential campaigns provide many good examples of the dangers in letting attacks go unrebutted. In 1988 Michael Dukakis’s campaign was damaged by his failure to respond quickly to George H. W. Bush’s advertising attacks criticizing Dukakis’s record on crime. More recently, in 2004 John Kerry failed to take seriously the attacks of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group on his Vietnam War record. Rebuttals must come quickly, and they must be direct responses, not couched in vague or ambiguous terms.
There is also a concern that increased negative advertising may lead to lessened participation in the political process by voters. Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995) have proposed that exposure to negative advertisements can decrease election turnout by turning voters off and making them cynical about politics. Most other researchers, however, have not found this to be the case, and some research even suggests that heightened negativity may increase political interest and stimulate turnout (Kaid 2006a).
New Directions In Political Advertising
Criticisms of political advertising have led to the desire on the part of news journalists to scrutinize political ads and to attempt to circumvent the candidate’s desire for a controlled message unfiltered by the media. Print and broadcast journalists have begun to offer “adwatches” as a way of exposing inaccurate or distorted advertising messages. In an adwatch, a journalist analyzes the advertisement, researches the claims made in it, and attempts to evaluate the truth and accuracy of the ad. While journalists hoped adwatches would mediate the effects of ads on the public by pointing out untruthful or distorted claims, studies have shown that this is often not the case. Frequently, despite journalistic efforts, adwatches have served to enhance the ad, making its visual and verbal claims more salient to viewers.
Political advertising has taken new directions recently with the increased importance of the Internet (Kaid 2006b). Candidates are using websites as a form of direct political advertising, and they are also using them to host copies of their political television ads, making it possible for viewers to play and replay the ads. In addition, some candidates and third-party interest groups are using their own websites to distribute unique video ads produced only for distribution on the web. Some of these formats take advantage of the interactivity possible on the web, thus providing more opportunity for direct voter involvement in the ads. Web publishing tools have also made it possible for ordinary citizens to produce their own ads. These are all trends that will grow and take new directions in the future.
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