Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Explaining Perceptions of Advertising Tone

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Explaining Perceptions of Advertising Tone

Article excerpt


The authors investigate whether the news media and the tone of actual ads aired during a political campaign influence people's perceptions of campaign ad tone. Using data on the content of political advertising, local television news coverage, and local newspaper coverage in nine races in five midwestern states in 2006, the authors discover that perceptions of ad tone respond to both exposure to advertising and exposure to local news media. Both positive and negative advertising drive tone perceptions, and the impact of ad coverage depends not on its volume or mentions of tone but on whether that coverage is framed strategically or not.


political communication, campaign ad, tone, exposure

Recent scholarship has done wonders for the reputation of the thirty-second political ad. Once charged with causing voters to stay home on Election Day (Ansolabehere, Iyengar, and Valentino 1994; Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995), political ads are now seen as tools that either mobilize voters (Wattenberg and Brians 1999; Franz et al. 2007) or, at the very least, fail to demobilize them (Lau, Sigelman, and Rovner 2007). Moreover, ads are now seen as promoting voter learning (Ridout et al. 2004) and doing little to tarnish people's attitudes about government and the democratic system (Jackson, Mondak, and Huckfelt 2009). But before scholars collectively go too far in praising political advertising, it is worth considering one other, often overlooked avenue by which advertising may influence the voter: news media coverage of these advertisements. Media coverage of political advertising is quite extensive in most campaigns and represents an indirect route by which advertising might influence perceptions of advertising and, more specifically, perceptions of its tone. Yet to date, scholars know little about the extent or effect of such coverage. We therefore ask whether voter perceptions of advertising tone might be related to the media coverage of that advertising in addition to the tone of the paid ads that are actually aired. In doing so, we assess the extent of the news media's influence-their ability (or inability) to shape the reality of the advertising campaign that people see on their own television screens-and the way in which that influence might take place.

There are two main routes by which the news media may influence perceptions of advertising tone. First, and most directly, because the media disproportionately focus their attention on negative ads (Ridout and Smith 2008; Fowler and Ridout 2009), they upset the balance of ads to which people are exposed by amplifying the extent to which individuals are exposed to particular spots. Thus, increased exposure to news media coverage of political advertising might result in more negative perceptions of a campaign ad tone. Second, news reporters may frame or "package" their coverage of political advertising in a specific light. More to the point, research suggests that strategic frames increase cynicism, which may lead citizens to believe that candidates are attacking more than they actually are. Of course, a final possibility is that the media do not influence perceptions of advertising tone, that the reality of the advertising that people experience firsthand on their television sets trumps the impression of the ad campaign given by the news media.

In sum, our research asks whether it is the tone of the ads to which people are exposed on television that chiefly drives perceptions of advertising tone or whether the news media play a central role in the process. If the latter, by which route do the news media have an impact: by increasing "secondary" exposure to negative advertising, by framing their coverage to focus on the strategy and game of the campaign, or both?

This research thus speaks centrally to the extent of media influence in political campaigns-and the ability of the news media to trump reality-but it also is important given the potential of perceptions of ad negativity to influence people's behaviors and attitudes toward the political system. …

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