October 13, 2008 — There’s an old adage: turn up the flame if you want the pot to boil. That’s the approach that candidates in recent political contests have been following with increasing enthusiasm, unleashing a growing torrent of incendiary ads with each election cycle. In the months leading up to the 2004 elections, more than 3 million political ads were televised. Presidential candidates, along with their parties and interest group allies, spent $800 million to broadcast more than a million ads — more than twice the number aired before the 2000 elections. As the 2008 election heads to its conclusion, it’s clear that totals from the previous election will be dwarfed yet again.
As Paul Freedman sees it, hotter is better, not just for the candidates, but for democracy as a whole. Using an exhaustive database of political ads as well as voter surveys, Freedman, an associate professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, maintains that this deluge of 30-second spots is a good thing. “As exposure to political ads goes up, people’s knowledge of the candidates increases, their interest in the campaign increases and the probability that they will cast a ballot rises.” A detailed presentation of Freedman’s findings, based on research conducted with colleagues at Bowdoin College, the University of Wisconsin, and Washington State University, is contained in the book "Campaign Advertising and American Democracy," published by Temple University Press.
Freedman’s conclusions place him at odds with many political commentators, who find Americans apathetic and distanced from the responsibilities of citizenship. These observers point to the substitution of what they consider to be misleading and manipulative advertising for reasoned and dispassionate public debate as one cause of this situation.
Freedman’s research is based on ad-tracking data collected by private companies as a way to help their political clients track their own media placement and that of their adversaries. “This information transforms the study of campaign advertisements,” Freedman remarked. “In the past, observers could only comment on the content of ads. Now we know which ad was aired in which market, how many times, and when.” By connecting this data to survey information on voting from major media markets, Freedman can measure the impact of ads on participation.
Freedman found that even negative ads had a beneficial effect by raising the flame under the campaign. “If the stakes are higher, people will tune in and get involved,” he said. “Our findings consistently show that the aggregate impact of negative ads is to engage and mobilize the electorate.”
But this could change. While Freedman noted that ad hominem attacks have been a perennial feature of political campaigns, he acknowledged that the particular elements of a campaign change over time, making it difficult to generalize from one election to another. “The minute we get something into focus from the last campaign season, a new group of factors comes into play. We can’t just extrapolate,” he said.
Freedman points out that drawing conclusions about the political landscape in 2008 will require the observer to take into account blogs as well as online solicitations. “New technologies alter the way people relate to the political process,” he said. “Each election is a puzzle, but the pieces always change from year to year and the picture they form is always different.”
— By Charlie Feigenoff