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1 The Role of Campaign Advertising D URING EVERY election campaign, American politicians invade our television sets. They enter our lives uninvited and in thirty-second increments. We see them during commercial breaks while watching our favorite talk or game shows. We see them between the sports and weather updates during the local news. We might even see them before a television judge renders a verdict on a case, or during a rerun of a law or medical drama on cable television. These political messages come in many shades and tones. Some of them are positive and uplifting, where candidates recount the struggles and triumphs of their lives. Many evoke feelings of enthusiasm, hope, or joy, cued with a crescendo of uplifting music. Some show the American flag waving. Others depict the candidate eagerly talking with everyday Americans about economic or moral issues. Some ads, by contrast, are negative and nasty, attacking an opponent ’s policy ideas or personal character. Many of these messages try to scare or anger us, using ominous music or unflattering black-andwhite photos of a political opponent. The point of these ads is crystal clear: your future depends on my election to office. Not all ads are sponsored by candidates, of course. The Democratic and Republican parties are major players in the advertising game. 2 Î Chapter 1 Some of their ads are coordinated with candidates’ campaigns, and some are produced and aired independently. Outside interest groups are also part of the mix. Labor unions are perennially present, for example, but increasingly so are groups with strange-sounding names: Americans for Job Security, Freedom’s Watch, Majority Action, Vets for Freedom, and American Rights at Work. In short, televised political advertising is everywhere, and its ubiquity raises fundamental questions. Does any of it really matter? Do political ads break through the clutter and enter the consciousness of the American voter? In other words, do they influence citizens’ views of the candidates and affect how they vote on Election Day? On the one hand, of course, the answer seems obvious. They must matter. Why, otherwise, would candidates and their allies spend so much money on them? This is certainly the impression that one gains from journalistic coverage of campaigns. For example, Tom Wicker wrote in the New York Times in 1988 that many blamed the Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’s loss on “Willie Horton . . . rather than [the success of] ideological conservatism” (Wicker 1988). The Willie Horton ads were some of the most famous political ads of the previous thirty years, and they attempted to depict Dukakis as soft on crime (Geer 2006, 121–123; Mendelberg 2001). Many believe it was a few ads by the organization Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, featuring men who had served with John Kerry in Vietnam, that led to Kerry’s loss in 2004. As the veteran journalist Robert Novak put it on an appearance on Meet the Press in July 2007, “For Republicans [in 2004] a swift boat was a very good thing. [It] kept John Kerry from being president.”1 And it was Hillary Clinton’s “3 A.M.” ad, asking which Democratic candidate voters would want answering the phone at the time of a national crisis, that propelled her to victory in Pennsylvania during the 2008 nominating contest—at least according to some. Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, had this to say about the ad in August 2008: “Clever negative advertising works. That is reality. The tactic meets 1 Transcript,, July 15, 2007, available online at id/19694666/print/1/displaymode/1098 (accessed January 29, 2010). The Role of Campaign Advertising D 3 with media and pundit disapproval and spawns accusations of negativity , but the reality is that a clever negative ad can be devastatingly effective.”2 Although there is some scholarly evidence that political commercials move votes, there is still no consensus about the extent of advertising ’s impact—that is, how many votes, if any, are changed. Many scholars have chosen to investigate important byproduct effects of advertising, such as the relationship between advertising tone and citizens’ involvement or participation in the political system. But as Huber and Arceneaux (2007, 957) write, “Few studies that analyze actual campaigns have been able to demonstrate that advertisements persuade individuals to change their minds.” Much political-science research more generally would suggest that ads should have little impact on changing people’s candidate preferences . Many people enter election campaigns as partisans...


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