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7 How Ad Coverage in News Matters I T IS A WELL-KNOWN STORY, at least to those who study political advertising: in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign created and aired the infamous “Daisy Girl” ad. It featured a young girl who was plucking petals off a flower while in the background an ominous voice counted down as if preparing for a missile launch. When the count reached zero, an explosion appeared in the background, giving the effect that a nuclear bomb had been detonated. Because of the fury the ad caused, Johnson’s campaign pulled it after it had aired only once. But virtually the whole country knew something about it, as it was aired on national news broadcasts and became the center of national conversation. Such ads—those whose impact is amplified by the news media— are not all that rare. The Willie Horton ad from the presidential campaign in 1988 comes to mind; the ad accused the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis of giving weekend prison passes to first-degree murderers. The Swift Boat Veterans ads aired in 2004 are another good example. In this final empirical chapter, we take up two recent developments in political advertising: the amplification of political ads through media coverage—a trend that is on the rise—and the growth of advertising designed for or disseminated through the Internet. While our research has considered seriously the effects of 124 Î Chapter 7 exposure to televised political advertising on voting choice, there are increasingly greater opportunities for voters—even those without televisions—to encounter campaign spots elsewhere, and these opportunities deserve some discussion. Media Coverage of Ads Consider first an example of an ad covered aggressively by the news media during the 2006 elections. The ad, paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and aired in the waning weeks of the 2006 U.S. Senate contest in Tennessee, was one of the most memorable of that year. A Washington Post writer called it “one of the funniest, slickest, best-produced political ads of the year.” The Post writer described the ad, which was aired against the Democrat Harold Ford Jr., this way: A succession of stupid or shady characters expresses support for Ford, applauding him because he wants to make families pay higher taxes or take guns away from hunters. A greasy guy in dark sunglasses claims Ford has taken contributions from pornographers, but shrugs and adds, “Who hasn’t?” Among the mock endorsers is a blond bimbo—sorry, but that’s the only word—who squeals, “I met Harold at the Playboy party!” At the end of the ad she reappears, suggesting a certain intimacy as she implores, “Harold, call me.” Critics of the ad were numerous. Among the complaints was that the ad was sending not-so-subtle racially charged messages, given that Ford is African American and the “bimbo” was white. Some believed the ad was trying to play on whites’ fears of interracial dating. John Geer, a political scientist, was quoted in the New York Times as saying the ad “makes the Willie Horton ad look like child’s play.” Even Ford’s opponent in the race, the Republican Bob Corker, called on the NRSC to take down the ad. Data on how many times this ad aired in Tennessee, or how much the Republican Party paid to air the ad, are hard to come by, as our main sources of ad-tracking data, the Wisconsin Advertising Project, was active in only five Midwestern states in 2006. But we do know that How Ad Coverage in News Matters D 125 a lot of Tennesseans—and people from others states, as well—knew about the ad. A Mason–Dixon poll of Tennessee residents conducted a few days after the ad went off the air found that 81 percent of them had seen it. The big question for us, however, is how that exposure to the ad occurred. Undoubtedly, many Tennesseans saw the ad during a commercial break on their local television station, but how many of them also—or solely—saw the ad featured on a news broadcast, saw it on the Internet, heard about it on the radio, or read about it in a newspaper ? Until now, we have assessed the influence of ads only in the first case: exposure on television during a commercial break. Certainly, there was ample opportunity to learn about the ad. Both the national ABC and CBS nightly news broadcasts aired a story...


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