Home > Uncategorized > Heuristics, Attack Ads & Corporate Money

Heuristics, Attack Ads & Corporate Money

In Campaign Advertising and American Democracy (2008), the authors systematically and thoroughly support their central argument: that “there are good reasons to believe that political ads may actually educate, engage, and mobilize American citizens” (p. 4). Specifically, through a careful analysis of data, they conclude that ads provide an essential heuristic function for low-motivation voters, allowing them to “make reasonable electoral decisions” (p. 11). As we have also seen in other studies, it is clear that ads, particularly negative ads, provide information on candidate stances on the issues and that, furthermore, they stimulate viewers to pay attention because of emotional cues.

The authors argue that their work is unique because of its methodology, employing data from surveys which measured ad exposure by asking participants to recall which shows they watch in a given week (rather than a general measure of how much television they watched, or a daypart measure), which they then coordinated with data from the Wisconsin Ad Project, which gives a detailed account of political ad placements in the largest markets in the U.S. by television program. The authors could thus connect specific participants’ program viewing habits with the ads that actually aired during those programs. They are able to make a convincing argument (I thought) for why this methodology is superior to other ways of measuring ad exposure, dealing effectively and honestly with a range of questions and challenges to this approach.

Among their many interesting findings, I would like to highlight their discussion of the sponsorship of advertising (pp. 58 – 63). Interest groups engage (by far) in the most attack advertising, and are particularly active in highly contested and important races. Since this book was written before the Citizens United decision, I found the following sentence particularly prescient: “An accurate inventory of political advertising not only must include candidate-sponsored ads, but interest group, 527, and party advertising as well” (p. 53). If ads are truly providing a heuristic for low-information voters, than the potentially overwhelming messaging of unregulated corporate money that the recent decision allowed needs to be monitored and carefully studied. It may be time to talk, in a more nuanced way than 80 years ago, about the propagandizing power of the media (more nuanced, because we would be taking into account all we have learned since then about cognitive processing, small effect sizes, etc.). I would be curious to see a study that examined the use of repeated messages across interest group advertising, and whether those messages are reflected in “citizens’ grasp of the alternatives in a campaign” (p. 11).

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