The Functional Approach to Presidential Television Spots: Acclaiming, Attacking, Defending 1952-2000

By Benoit, William L. | Communication Studies, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Functional Approach to Presidential Television Spots: Acclaiming, Attacking, Defending 1952-2000


Benoit, William L., Communication Studies


Television spots are a vital component of the modern presidential campaign. One indication of their importance is the fact that candidates expend huge amounts of money on television advertising. Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995) observed that "The amounts of money spent on political advertising are staggering: Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into what has become the main means of political communication in the United States" (p. 3). In the most recent election cycle, the Brennan Center reported that "Since June 1, Mr. Bush and the Republicans spent $65 million on television, and Mr. Gore, the Democrats and outside groups spent $61.6 million" (Marks, 2000, p. A23). Despite the fact that the 2000 presidential race was focused so heavily on "battleground states," the number of ads is spiraling up: 162,000 presidential spots were broadcast in 1996, and as of October 24, 2000, "voters had already been exposed to 187,000 spots, evenly split between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore" (Marks, 2000 p. A23). Unquestionably, televised spots are an extremely important component of the modern presidential campaign.

Second, voters obtain substantial amounts of information on the candidates and their policy positions from political advertisements. Research on the 1972 (Patterson & McClure, 1976) and the 1984 (Kern, 1989) campaigns concluded that "by a ratio of 4 to 1, Americans received the majority of their information about candidate positions on the issues from ads rather than the news" (Kern, 1989, p. 47). Similarly, Brians and Wattenberg's (1996) analysis of 1992 NES data found that "Recalling political ads is more significantly associated with knowledge of candidates' issue positions than is reading the newspaper or watching political news on television" (p. 185). The news media are less useful for instilling issue knowledge because more air time is devoted to ads than to political news during a campaign, and the news tends to focus on "horse race" reporting (Patterson, 1980; Robinson & Sheehan, 1983). So, political spots inform voters, more so than does the news.

Third, empirical studies of effects of television spots show that such ads are influential. Research has documented a positive relationship between election outcomes and advertising expenditures (Joslyn, 1981; Mulder, 1979; Palda, 1973; Wanat, 1974). In the 1972 presidential campaign, for example, McClure and Patterson (1974) indicated that "Exposure to political advertising was consistently related to voter belief change" (p. 16). Thus, research demonstrates that political campaign commercials are capable of influencing voters.

Finally, experimental research on ads developed by candidates (Basil, Schooler, & Reeves, 1991; Faber, Tims, & Schmitt, 1993; Garramone, 1985; Just, Crigler, & Wallach, 1990; Kaid & Boydston, 1987; Kaid, Leland, & Whitney, 1992; Lang, 1991; Newhagen & Reeves, 1991) as well as on commercials created by researchers (Cundy, 1986; Garramone, Atkin, Pinkleton, & Cole, 1990; Hill, 1989; Thorson, Christ, & Caywood, 1991) demonstrates that TV spots have effects on viewers. For these reasons, televised political spots are important kinds of messages in political campaigns, worthy of scholarly attention.

This essay begins by reviewing the literature on the two essential dimensions of televised political spots: negative (attack) versus positive ads, and image versus issue ads (for a history of the spot, see Diamond & Bates, 1992; Jamieson, 1996; for a discussion of negative ads in particular, see James & Hensel, 1991; Johnson-Cartee & Copeland, 1993). This leads to the hypotheses tested and research questions answered in this study. Then I explicate the functional theory of political campaign discourse. Next, I report the results of an analysis of presidential television spots from 1952-2000. Finally, I discuss the implications of this analysis.

PREVIOUS RESEARCH ON THE CONTENT OF POLITICAL SPOTS

A great deal of research has been conducted on televised spots (see, e.

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