Television and Political Advertising: Psychological Processes - Vol. 1

By Frank Biocca | Go to book overview

2 Viewers' Mental Models of Political Messages: Toward a Theory of the Semantic Processing of Television

Frank Biocca University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The battle of political commercials is a battle over meaning. Political spots struggle to realign the meanings of candidates, issues, and groups constructed in the mind of the voter. To fully grasp the function and effectiveness of the political commercial, it is necessary to better understand the interaction between the commercial and the voter. Viewed in cognitive terms, the struggle over the candidate's image is the struggle over the semantic processing of political commercials by voters. In the mind of the viewer the imagery of the political commercial is represented by networks of semantic nodes and markers radiating from a central concept, the candidate. In other words, viewers construct mental models ( Johnson-Laird, 1983) of information presented in the commercials.

This chapter outlines a framework for studying the viewer's mental representations of political commercials. The approach points to ways in which we might better understand the viewer's moment-to-moment processing of commercials as well as the viewer's long-term memory for commercials. The approach is encapsulated in a theory of schematic frames presented here. This theory is also a first step toward a more general approach to the semantic processing of television.

As a content area of television, political commercials provide excellent "texts" to study. Political commercials are neat 30 second units of television. They are a distinctive genre of television content, a closed universe of styles and techniques with predictable and relatively stable structures. Their short duration allows us to more easily analyze the

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