By integrating content analysis and experimental analysis of newspaper ad watches, this study examines the interactive qualities of news and candidate ads as well as the effects of those interactions. First, the content analysis shows that negative issue advertising is the most frequent focus of ad watch journalism. The tone of journalistic assessments of political ads is not invariably critical; while the press tends to deflate the accuracy of the ad messages, it more often than not reinforces the effectiveness of the messages. Second, an experimental analysis demonstrates that the tone of the news analysis of a campaign ad significantly influences the audiences' preferences toward the sponsoring candidate. However, it provides little support for the demobilizing effects of negativity in the ad watch coverage.
This study addresses one of the long-standing issues in political communication research: how campaign communications influence voter behaviors. While many recent campaign studies have compellingly documented that political communication has the potential to persuade and mobilize voters,1 this study focuses on the effects of campaign ad watches, which West describes as one of the most important news trends in the 1990s elections.2 Pfau and Louden define an ad watch as a "news critique of candidate ads designed to inform the public about claims that are either exaggerated or false."3
Constituting the single biggest expenditure in contemporary election campaigns, political advertising has increasingly attracted news coverage. Campaign commercials also frequently cite news reports as credible sources to support their messages.4 News ad watches best represent this growing intertwining between the paid advertising media and the news media by recirculating the content of prominent commercials along with evaluative commentaries on their accuracy and effectiveness.5 Ad watches, in this regard, provide an opportunity to assess how advertising and news, the two primary forms of campaign discourse, influence electoral outcomes.
There are only a few empirical studies documenting the effects of ad watches.6 Previous findings, indeed, have been inconsistent, especially regarding whether ad watches undermine or reinforce the claims of political ads. The present study suggests that those inconsistencies can be resolved by identifying the variables that primarily shape the content of the ad watch coverage and, consequently, determining the effects of the coverage.
Communication content functions as an antecedent or correlate "of a variety of individual processes, effects or uses people make of it."7 As Shoemaker and Reese8 point out, however, media effects studies tend to oversimplify the mass communication process by ignoring the specific characteristics of media content to which the audience is exposed. Previous studies on ad watch effects are no exception; they often disregard the problem of "exposure to what," focusing instead on exposure. This tendency, according to Shoemaker and Reese, may "hamper the development of mass communication theories" by concealing the important effects and social significance of some content-related factors.9
The present study addresses this problem by integrating the study of effects with study of content. Specifically, an initial content analysis of the ad watch will be used to decide which variables may play into its effects-the same variables that later will be manipulated in subsequent experimentation.
News discourse on direct candidate communication has displayed its own unique styles and patterns. Network news coverage of candidate speeches, for instance, "regularly reduce[s] the candidates to gesturing, voiceless figures, the power of their language and ideas lost in reporters' summaries."10 The post-debate coverage "focuses almost exclusively on the candidates' debating styles and on how their performance would affect the horse race."11 Yet few studies have comprehensively illuminated the nature of the news coverage of political ads. …