Home > Uncategorized > Political Advertising necessitates Quant, Qual & Rhetorical Study

Political Advertising necessitates Quant, Qual & Rhetorical Study

The demobilization hypothesis, advanced so persuasively in Ansolabehere and Iyengar’s Going Negative (1995), which we read two weeks ago, is effectively questioned or even overturned by the series of studies that we read for this week. While it may seem to be common sense that negative campaigning, centered in what seems to be an increasing use of attack advertisements, is having a detrimental effect on our political process, and that specifically it discourages participation, in fact our authors this week are able to find ways that such advertising makes a positive contribution.

Specifically, Geer (2006) finds that negative advertising provides a richer information environment, because “attacks are more likely to be supported by evidence than self-promotion claims” (p. 63). I discussed this with my Comm 1200 classes this morning, as we watched political ads both for and against Prop 23 in California – each of the ads (particularly the NO ad) made specific factual claims regarding the other side, some of which were enough to convince my Missouri students that they understood some aspects of this California issue. A new anti-Blunt ad, made by an interest group, uses tactics that could be seen as the height (or depth) of political attack, but makes its factual point that Blunt voted against money for healthcare for 9/11 workers while voting himself a pay raise several times. Negative ads can certainly inform. However, as my undergrads pointed out today, they can so exaggerate in their depiction of the other side’s position, that their “facts” become distortions that need to be double-checked by adwatches or fact-checking websites.

Such ads can also lower the tone of the political process. Notwithstanding Haley’s excellent rhetorical critique of the word “negative,” and her awesome debater’s take on the give and take of our political process, I do think that the question of the line between genuine difference of opinion on issue stances and “mudslinging” is worth further study. In my lifetime I have certainly seen a general slide into incivility in our public life, one that is echoed and amplified by some aspects of political advertising. Of course, one could counter that with examples of mudslinging from the earliest days of our republic! But, to my mind, such studies as Mutz & Reeves (2005) debate study on the effects of incivility have their necessary parallel in studies of political advertising.

Perhaps the best overview of the entire area political communication research on negative political advertising is Lau & Rovner’s (2009) thorough meta-analysis. This is now the third time I have read the study (once in Media Effects, once in Poli Comm), and was struck by the fact that we have read most of the studies they reference during the course of this semester in this class! One finding I would like to highlight this time around is found on page 294, which is that earlier studies found that women use negative appeals less than men (one particular study was examining the 1988, 1990 and 1992 campaigns). I did my book report for political communication class on a qualitative study of female MPs, and their consistent message was that negative attacks by women are perceived as “shrill,” but if women do not enter the fray, they are sometimes overrun by the opposition’s negativity – that is, the class double-bind. Something tells me Carly Fiorina is willing to enter the fray!

Among our many interesting readings for today, I thought the most important were those that asked how negative ads are actually perceived and processed by citizens. Martin (2004) proposes three specific mechanisms – republican duty, candidate threat, cost/benefit utility analysis (that is, is the race close enough for my vote to make a difference?) – by which negative advertising becomes more salient and thus is processed more centrally by citizens. More importantly (I believe), Sigelman & Kugler (2003) raise this crucial argument: “ordinary citizens’ perceptions of negative campaigning may bear little resemblance to negativity as social scientists measure it” (p. 143). Their conclusions – that citizens’ decisions regarding political participation and candidate support are based on their perceptions of the entire campaign environment, perceptions which are constrained by a desire for heuristics – I believe are a good argument for the use of qualitative methods in political communication research. We need to know what people are actually thinking, and how they are actually processing these things that we like to dissect in our social scientific studies. To my mind, that means we need to get out there and talk to people and experience, qualitatively, the way they perceive the campaigns.

Lastly, a quick sort of meta-note about one reading from this week. Having just touted qual research, I will now lift up quant. I think Brooks (2006) has what half my family would call chutzpah! For her to quantitatively, step-by-step call into question a major work by respected scholars in the field, and to do so convincingly, was a real example of what one can do through sound quantitative methodology. It was quite interesting to read her piece not long after many of us were challenged on the Quantitative Methods midterm to recognize that a study can fail to adequately assess its conceptual hypothesis if the researchers do not properly define their operational variables.

  1. Brian Houston
    October 20, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Very nice. Excellent reaction post. I agree about the Brooks article. But could you imagine being on the other end of this? To publish a significant piece and then have someone come along and step-by-step illustrate why you are wrong? Oy vey, I hope that never happens to me.

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