Legislators' Advertising Messages in Seven State Campaigns in 1986

Article excerpt

Ad messages reflect image more than action.

During election season, campaign messages highlight personal qualities of legislative candidates-yet at the same time these political communications transmit perceptions of governing bodies to which the candidates aspire. Selected ideas are conveyed in campaign advertising as part of the appeal for votes. Words and pictures dispatch bits of information about both Congress and the state legislatures.

Campaign advertising is considered one vehicle of media contact, in some perspectives "more effective than news in carrying a message" to the voter.1 For presidential campaigns, we have studies of campaign advertising and of free media coverage,2 but at the state level we still know little about the substantive content of campaigns. While media research has regularly dealt with candidate recognition and campaign "effects," less attention has been given to the underlying informational message. Does advertising support the candidates' party label? What ideas are offered as the "meat" for voter evaluation? Do the legislators focus on state or national problems? What might the messages tell about the fundamental nature of the candidates and their governmental responsibilities?

Political advertising may be the public's most plentiful source of substantive information about candidates for districtlevel office. The free media give scanty coverage. Announcements of legislative candidacies, usually with the standard identifying information, appear in the daily and weekly press and on live media. But media reports about state-level candidates are hit-or-miss.3 Office seekers with special credentials as "newsworthy" subjects might have ready access to the media (i.e. children of former politicians, figures from the entertainment world). Hard news might be created if major controversy erupts in a race, if it becomes dramatic or novel. But under ordinary circumstances, the free media lack the means (available reporters) and the space or time to disseminate in-depth facts about the many legislative candidates in state races, even about candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Incumbents, of course, employ active communication channels based on constituent service; these individuals rely much less than challengers on free media coverage of legislative races. Statewide wire services will cover candidates for governor and senator who perhaps receive adequate notice. U.S. House candidates get far less attention; coverage of state candidates is minimal. Therefore, paid media communication becomes a major avenue for dispensing informational detail about the the sub-state candidate and his policies; advertising requires major campaign expenditure.

Clearly, the first mission of campaign advertising is to create a personal image, not to describe a legislator's local or national obligations. The personality is a saleable item.4 Responsibility, trust, experience, responsiveness are typical of personal qualities conveyed about all candidates. Any rhetoric bearing on the duties of the office will be supportive of the image.5

Issue-related advertising is secondary and has no philanthropic objective. Informational messages are primarily a tool of persuasion.6 Ads aim to please, to arouse, to excite with accounts of responsibilities or problems. The pictures of government are meant to coincide with those of the voter or to lead him gently to support the candidate's more attractive perception. But since individuals in society vary widely in level of political awareness, some voters may indeed learn from political advertising; others, at least, have their perceptions awakened.7 In lower-level elections, political communication may serve as an agent of stability, an aid to voter orientation, or even an agent of volatility. Voter attitudes on local issues often arise from evaluation of an incumbent,8 yet the basis for judging the incumbent may be a campaign message. …