Differential Linguistic Content of Various Forms of Political Advertising

By Gunsch, Mark A.; Brownlow, Sheila et al. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Differential Linguistic Content of Various Forms of Political Advertising


Gunsch, Mark A., Brownlow, Sheila, Haynes, Sarah E., Mabe, Zachary, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


"You sell your candidates ... the way a business sells its products" one-time Republican National Chair Leonard Hall noted. One of the most effective methods to "sell' candidates is televised advertising (Hacker & Swan, 1992), which is designed to provide viewers with information about current issues (Haddock & Zanna, 1997; Kaid & Sanders, 1978) as well as the traits and qualifications of candidates and opponents (Christ, Thorson, & Caywood, 1994; Kahn & Geer, 1994; Shyles, 1984). There is a link between political advertising and attitudes toward the political process and voting, as ads may increase general awareness despite negative reactions to them (Austin & Pinkleton, 1995; Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1991). Given that candidates typically spend over 60 percent of their campaign budget on television advertising (Devlin, 1993; Kaid, Gobetz, Garner, Leland, & Scott, 1993), and over 200 million dollars (part of which comes from taxpayers) is spent on TV ads during a campaign (West, 1994/1995), examination of the linguistic construction of various political ads is important.

Televised political advertising can take many forms. Positive ads promote the personal characteristics of the sponsoring candidate in attempt to convince people that the candidate has strong leadership abilities and other favorable qualities (Basil, Schooler, & Reeves, 1991). Such ads focus on the good things that the candidate has done or will do, and may not tacitly or explicitly mention the opponent. Negative ads are intended to make the opposing candidate look bad by attacking personal characteristics, political issues, or affiliated party (Garramone, 1984; Haddock & Zanna, 1997; Stewart, 1975). Negative ads may not even note the name of the sponsor (Homer & Batra, 1994). Finally, some political ads may contain elements of both positive and negative ads in order to promote the sponsor while denigrating the target (Newhagen & Reeves, 1991). These comparative or mixed-format ads are designed to hurt the opponent (Merritt, 1984) and to engender positive feelings about the sponsor (Budesheim, Houston, & DePaola, 1996).

Positive, negative, and mixed (comparative) ads have distinctly different formats: most attention has been given to the content and effects of negative ads. A positive ad includes the candidate, highlighting character or issues, without mentioning the opponent (Basil et al., 1991). If candidates discuss issues in these ads, the ad tends to be evaluated more highly (Kaid & Sanders, 1978). Negative ads take several varied formats (Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1991), although they often employ a narrator to impugn the ethics or abilities of the opposing candidate (Procter & Schenck-Hamlin, 1996). Johnson-Cartee & Copeland (1991) describe 11 distinct presentation methods in negative ads (ranging from "person-in-the-street" interviews to mock news bulletins), all of which have one common element: the sponsoring candidate never appears. Different types of negative ads utilize varied argumentation formats, including direct attack, implied comparison (where the opponent is never mentioned, and the sponsor is only mentioned as a "tag" at the end), and direct comparison (which explicitly contrasts the sponsor and the opponent). Although containing negative components, the direct comparison ad can also be classified as a comparative or mixed ad, as it describes positive aspects about the sponsor while attacking the opponent.

Immediate affective reactions as well as the long-term effects (on voting, attitudes toward politics and advertising, etc.) of negative ads provide insight as to why candidates employ them. Negative ads were once considered a tool used only by politicians who were untrustworthy and immature. These ads now account for over half of ad budgets (Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1989). Candidates may choose to use negative ads in their campaigns for good reason; for example, some incumbents have been defeated in part because they refused to answer negative ads (Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1989). …

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