A Functional Analysis of Political Advertising across Media, 1998

Article excerpt

Much has been written about political advertising (see, e.g., Aden, 1989; Kaid, Nimmo, & Sanders, 1986; Louden, 1989, 1998). This is hardly surprising given the huge amounts of money devoted to political spots (commercials or advertisements; see, e.g., Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1995). Jamieson observes correctly that "political advertising in now the major means by which candidates for the presidency communicate their messages to voters" (1996, p. 517). Research on two different campaigns has confirmed that four times as many voters obtain more issue information from television spots than from the news (Patterson & McClure, 1976; Kern, 1989). Clearly, political spots (advertisements) merit scholarly attention.

Devlin (1977, 1982, 1987, 1989, 1993, 1997) has chronicled presidential television advertising each campaign starting with 1976. Benoit (1999), Diamond and Bates (1992), Jamieson (1996) and Levine (1995) discuss the history of presidential TV spots. James and Hensel (1991), Johnson-Cartee and Copeland (1993, 1997), and Procter and Schenck-Hamlin (1996) have focused on negative or attack ads in particular. Several studies adopted a rhetorical approach to political advertising (e.g., Gronbeck, 1992; Jamieson, 1989; Shyles, 1991; or Smith & Johnston, 1991). While direct mail has become an increasingly important medium, little research has investigated its nature (see Pfau, Kenski, Nitz, & Sorenson, 1990). Political candidates are increasingly using webpages, but again, research on this new message form is still in its infancy (Davis, 1999; Selnow, 1998; Tedesco, Miller, & Spiker, 1999).


The literature that is most relevant to this project analyzes television spots on the two primary dimensions of such messages: functions and topics.

Functions: Acclaims versus Attacks (and Defenses)

Most research on presidential television spots divides ads into positive and negative (attacking) spots. However, the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse (Benoit, Blaney, & Pier, 1998, 2000; see also Benoit, 1999; Benoit & Harthcock, 1999; Benoit, Pier, & Blaney, 1997; Benoit, Wells, Pier, & Blaney, 1999) acknowledges that there are three possible functions: acclaiming (self-praise; positive), attacking (criticism of opponent; negative) and defending (responses to attacks; refutation). Three works offer an overview of the functions of political advertising. Kaid and Johnston (1991) found that 71% of the 830 presidential television commercials they studied from 1960 to 1988 were positive and 29% negative. However, the number of negative ads varied over time: Negative spots spiked at 40% in 1964, dropped to 22-28% in the 1970s, and increased to 35-37% in the 1980s. Kaid and Johnston (1991) found no difference in use of negative spots by challengers than incumbents. West (1997) studied 379 spots from 1952 to 1996, reporting that 46% of the ads were positive (and the rest negative). Benoit's (1999) analysis of 829 presidential spots from every presidential campaign to use this message form (1952-1996) found that 60% of the utterances were acclaims, 39% attacks, and 1% defenses. He also reported that challengers were prone to use attacks more frequently than incumbents (45% to 33%) while incumbents used more acclaims than did challengers (66% to 54%). Thus, research reveals that presidential television advertising uses acclaims (positive ads) more than attacks (negative ads), and, rarely, defenses.

Topics: Policy versus Character Advertising

The second major dimension employed to analyze political ads is topic: policy (issue) and character (image or personality). Kaid and Johnston (1991) reported that 67% of the positive ads and 79% of the negative ads provide issue information, and that 65% of the positive spots and 64% of the negative spots include image information. West (1997) reported that 61% of the ads in his sample mentioned issues. …