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Reaction 5: Retesting Old Theories with New Methods

Beginning in the 1988 presidential elections, scholars and the media began to take a closer look at the effect of political advertisements, particularly negative ads, on democracy.  Some earlier researchers argued that campaign advertising “serves to corrupt and debase democratic discourse, mislead and confuse citizens, shrink and polarize the electorate, and constrain elected representatives in their efforts to promote good public policy” (136). However, more recent studies have purported that political ads, and particular negative advertisements, actually promote a healthier democratic environment by increasing citizens’ political knowledge, promoting interest, and encouraging participation.  The overall consensus in much of the literature on campaign advertisements is that ads, positive and negative, are not detrimental to American society, and may, in fact, add something valuable to the process.

These findings are basically repeated in Michael Franz, Paul Freedman, Kenneth Goldstein, and Travis Ridout’s book Campaign Advertising and American Democracy.  While they do offer two unique hypotheses (the differential hypothesis and the partisan hypothesis), much of the results are simply replications of what we already know:  political ads, particular negative advertisements, are not detrimental to democracies, and offer many benefits.  Therefore, I argue that Franz et al. bring little new knowledge to the table (although it must be noted that their notion of campaign ads as “multivitamins of American politics…contained in an easy-to-swallow emotional coating” is quite clever) (p. 16).

Yet, despite its inability to expand on what we know about advertisements, Franz et al.’s study is valuable for its methodological approach.  Rather than relying on surveys, campaign spending information, archival data, ad buys, experimental methods, individual recall, or political knowledge variables as most scholars do, Franz et al. take advantage of a new, less problematic method of research:  tracking data.  Using the Wisconsin Advertising Project’s data, they were able to gauge not only the content of each advertisement, but also how many times, when, and where the ads took place.  In addition, Franz et al. combined the tracking data with respondents’ answers to various questions regarding viewing habits contained in three surveys.  Thus, they were able to create a substantially more valid measure of exposure to ads than previous scholars were able to obtain.  

Furthermore, Franz et al. included a variety of questions from all three surveys in order to assess the relationship between political advertisements on citizens’ information, participation, political efficacy, and interest in campaigns.  Moreover, they did not just focus on one election in one year.  Rather, Franz et al. looked at House, Senate, and presidential elections in both the 2000 and 2004 electoral contests.  While I personally believe they attempted to tackle too much—their findings were sometimes hard to follow because the study had way too much going on—I believe they should be praised for their efforts.  In fact, I would argue that the methods used in this book are among some of the best I have seen to date.  I think that the combination of using tracking data and surveys greatly enhances the validity of their findings, and thus legitimizes earlier scholars’ claims that political advertisements are not a threat to democracy.

In short, I argue that Campaign Advertising and American Democracy should be read by scholars interested in political campaigns, not so much for its informational value, but for its impeccable use of methods.  I recommend that future scholars take Franz et al.’s methodological approach into consideration when conducting new studies.  I believe that studies will be better for it.

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