January 23, 2008 — Television viewers in South Carolina and elsewhere may instinctively reach for their remote controls when yet another political ad airs during a commercial break, but those who stay tuned may reap some surprising benefits.
New research examining the political advertising of the 2004 election season suggests that the ever-growing barrage of political ads actually contributes to citizen education and engagement, and only rarely has negative impacts.
The research from University of Virginia politics professor Paul Freedman and three colleagues is detailed in a new book, "Campaign Advertising and American Democracy," (published last month by Temple University Press). The book is "the most comprehensive examination of political advertising that has been attempted to date," according to reviewer Darrell West of Brown University.
It has been estimated that more than 3 million political ads were televised leading up to the 2004 elections. More than $800 million was spent on TV ads in the race for the White House alone; presidential candidates, along with their parties and interest-group allies, broadcast over a million ads — more than twice the number aired before the 2000 elections.
Being barraged by political ads turns out to be a good thing, according to the authors' research, which is based on a unique and extensive database dedicated to political advertising.
The average American has an "impoverished diet of political information," said Freedman, and TV ads can be thought of as informational multi-vitamin wrapped up in emotional coding (positive or negative) that makes it easier to swallow the substantive information, which is usually accurate and often backed up with footnotes or references to newspaper passages, he said.
The information (both positive and negative) embedded in ads informs vote choices, activates citizen interest and passion, and raises the probability that citizens will tune in, pay attention and ultimately turn out to vote. "We found that the more ads that people are exposed to, the more likely they are to vote."
Political ads, especially negative ads, have a bad reputation. Pundits and the conventional wisdom often consider most political TV ads "nasty, brutish and short" — an annoyance at best, and at worst, corrosive to democratic citizenship and debasing to political discourse.
But Freedman and his co-authors find that negative ads, in particular those that draw contrasts between a candidate and his or her opponent's positions on issues or past record, turn out to have the most measurable positive effects. The sorts of ads most disliked by pundits are the ones most likely to educate, engage and mobilize voters, they reported.
Candidates realize the importance of responding to opponents' ads that raise questions about their records, character or issue stances, so negative ads help hold candidates accountable, Freedman said.
In South Carolina right now, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is running a positive ad about his own biography, background, experience and accomplishments. In contrast, John Edwards is running an ad that takes his opponents to task for taking money from drug industry lobbyists and political action committees.
Comparing South Carolina polling results from the past three weeks with ad buys in the first two weeks of January, Freedman notes striking correlations. From Jan. 1-14, Edwards ran 470 ads in the seven TV markets of South Carolina, while Clinton ran just over double that (1,030 ads), and Obama ran slightly more than three times as many (1,650 ads). One week later, an average of opinion polls as of Jan. 22 show Edwards with about 15 percent of likely primary voters, Clinton with double that (31 percent) and Obama with roughly triple (45 percent).
This does not show a direct cause-and-effect relationship, such as X dollars spent on TV advertising buys Y number of votes, said Freedman, but this is a stark example of how polling numbers track and mirror the strategic decisions by campaigns. "Just as citizens and the polls respond to advertising, candidates respond to the polls," said Freedman. "Candidates make strategic decisions based on what the contest looks like at any point in time." Freedman suggested that it makes strategic sense for Edwards to scale back his advertising spending in South Carolina, where he is lagging in the polls, in order to spend more in other states where he is running more competitively.
Freedman sees political TV ads as "frequently informative, often funny, usually clever, and just a whole lot of fun." Only in the rarest of circumstances do they have negative impacts.
Freedman is an associate professor in U.Va's Department of Politics. Since 2000, he has been an election analyst for ABC News in New York.
The co-authors of "Campaign Advertising and American Democracy" are Michael M. Franz, assistant professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College; Kenneth M. Goldstein, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project; and Travis N. Ridout, assistant professor of political science at Washington State University in Pullman.