Media Focus on Campaign Ad Strategy Amplifies Feeling of Negativity

Positive advertising matters as much if not more than negativity

(MIDDLETOWN, CT) Mar 14, 2012 — In the midst of perhaps the most negative presidential primary race in recent history, a new Wesleyan Media Project affiliated study (click here for an older local copy) published by Political Research Quarterly suggests that the tone of ads on the airwaves is not the only thing contributing to citizen perceptions of negativity.

“Despite the fact that citizens are directly exposed to the tone of advertising through their television sets, we find that media play a powerful role in shaping the extent to which the public believes that advertising is negative,” notes Travis N. Ridout, Washington State University associate professor and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “But it is not simply media discussion of negative spots per se that matters but rather the extent to which media discuss advertising in coverage of campaign strategy.”

The study draws on advertising and local media (both television and newspaper) content along with nearly 3,000 survey respondents from the 2006 midterm elections in eight Midwestern media markets from five states.  Respondents were asked to rate the senatorial and gubernatorial candidates’ campaign ads on a scale from “mostly negative” to “mostly positive.”

“Citizens vary in the extent to which they report perceiving the same candidate’s advertising as negative.  Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans on average are much more likely to believe that their respective opponent’s ads are more negative than their own candidate’s,” says Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University assistant professor and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.  “What did surprise us, given the evidence that negativity is more memorable, was that exposure to positive advertising was as much of a predictor of perceived tone as exposure to negative spots.  This may suggest that in a world where negative elections have become the norm, positivity may actually stand out, at least when citizens think about the tone of the race.”

The analysis controls for individual exposure to tone of ads on television and discussion of advertising in local media along with political knowledge and other standard demographics like education, sex, partisanship and competition.

Prior work published in Political Communication (click here for a local copy), confirms that ad amplification (media coverage of advertising) is prominent, most of it is low quality, and the volume depends both on the size of the market and the tone of the spots aired, with negativity unsurprisingly getting top billing. Somewhat surprisingly, however, television stations were not more likely than newspapers to cover advertising, though television does appear to be more sensitive to negative advertising.

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