Home > Uncategorized > REACTION 1: Political Advertising Research in a New Media Environment

REACTION 1: Political Advertising Research in a New Media Environment

With Missy’s thorough coverage of the methodological considerations already having been posted (thanks Missy!), I will focus more on theoretical issues, with just a few comments, questions and suggestions about method.
As media effects research has swung from the hypodermic needle model to the “minimal effects” thesis, and back to somewhere in the middle over the last seventy years or so, the media environment that is being studied has changed drastically. One can even ask if there is “a” media environment, meaning a shared reality that can be studied, today. No longer do we have a handful of television stations with a moderate number of choices. Now the individual can choose when, where, and how (s)he will consume media, including the choice to skip advertising altogether through the use of technology such as TiVo and DVRs. Furthermore, there is no longer a clear line between types of media, with product placements creeping into shows, “news” coverage that is thinly-veiled promotion of a particular party or candidate, the ease of blogging, and an increasing fluidity everywhere (see this New York Times article for the way some news organizations are shifting coverage based on online interest in stories)

What might this mean for studying political advertising? First, I believe it means a continual reexamination of the current media environment, with an eye to revising even research-based assumptions about what we will find there. For example, Goldstein & Ridout (2004) suggest that “equal media coverage” of presidential campaigns in the U.S. is a factor in research results (p. 209). In the current media environment, is this statement even supportable? How might it be researched? Do candidates really receive equal media coverage? On Fox? Do they only mean viable candidates? Who decides viability?

Second, I believe that some of the most exciting research might come at the intersection of different types of media, or perhaps at the nodes of the networks that are an emerging part of our interconnected world. An example of this might be to study the influence of political advertising on television news decision-makers. To what extent does news coverage of the “horse-race” reflect an unexamined persuasive influence upon people who function as nodes in the networks of meaning that then serve to persuade others? In a way, this would be an expansion of “two-step flow” research into the age of networking.

Third, and here we step towards the methodological, I believe we need to examine, and re-examine, our definitions of what it means to be highly interested and informed about politics. With some of the theories (e.g. Valentino, et al (2004), Zaller (1992)) about persuasion hinging on ELM-based distinctions between ways of processing information, it seems to me crucial to see what the new media environment is doing to these distinctions. How does a younger generation that has grown up in a media-saturated environment process messages? How might that influence their reception of the persuasive messages contained in political advertising? And, to return to a concern mentioned above, do they even encounter the ads at all when they can just choose to skip them?

Lastly, given the methodological considerations and the theoretical questions raised by our new media environment, I wonder to what extent we can even study political advertising (particularly if we only mean television ads) as a separate phenomenon. Maybe this is the critical cultural scholar in me coming out, but I believe that much of this calls into question the post-positivist approach to political advertising research.

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