Political Advertising Essay

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Political advertising encompasses a broad array of strategies in which paid media is used to communicate political messages to the public. Although most commonly associated with candidates’ campaign commercials, political advertising has developed into a massive industry in which various political actors (e.g., parties, advocacy groups) use a host of media such as radio, television, and the Internet to deliver carefully packaged messages directly to voters. Research has provided important insights into the use and effect of political ads, although some intriguing questions have yet to be fully resolved.

Early American Usage

Political advertising has developed considerably since its early use in the first American elections. Campaign advertisements were initially limited to handbills, newspaper ads, and, later, radio spots, but the advent of television significantly enhanced the ability of candidates to make direct appeals to the public. The 1952 U.S. presidential election featured the first series of televised candidate commercials which, although relatively simple, signaled a new era in political advertising. Over time, television spots became more ubiquitous, increasingly sophisticated, and, in some cases, more alarming. U.S. presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, for example, shocked many with contrasting images of a little girl and an atomic mushroom cloud—so much so that, although it only ran once, the media replayed it multiple times on evening newscasts. Since then, there have been many notable spots, including presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” ad, which used positive imagery to inspire voters, and his “Bear in the Woods” ad, which invoked fears of a foreign enemy—both themes that would be reused in subsequent campaigns. In 1988 the “Willie Horton” ad promoting the campaign of U.S. presidential candidate George H. W. Bush stirred controversy by allegedly including implicit racial cues, and, in 2000, an ad in which the word rats flashed briefly across the television screen during a voiceover regarding U.S. presidential candidate Al Gore’s prescription drug plan raised questions about the possible use of subliminal techniques in political advertising.

The American political advertising industry has expanded beyond presidential candidates to include a host of other political actors. It is now common for many candidates across all levels of elected office to spend large portions of their budgets on creating and airing ever more sophisticated advertising campaigns. In terms of buying air time, estimates show that congressional and gubernatorial candidates spent nearly $2 billion during the 2006 campaign alone. Political advertising has further expanded to include advocacy groups who now routinely sponsor “issue ads” that promote a policy—often implicitly tied to a candidate—without explicitly offering an endorsement. Candidates benefit from the issue being promoted without having to pay for the ad or being held accountable for what is said.

New Venues

Political advertising also has expanded to new venues. Campaigns are now using the Internet to create somewhat unorthodox pieces, such as animated spots or comedic skits that are intended to be distributed through a viral network of supporters. Individual citizens also have started producing their own Web-based political ads, some of which have gained considerable attention on the Internet. In addition, the 2004 U.S. presidential candidates pioneered a technique called “phantom advertising” in which they created ads that, rather than being aired, were sent to media outlets in the hopes that they would be included in stories about the campaign. American political advertising is an expanding enterprise that appears to be on the cusp of another profound change.

These trends and practices have started to have some influence on political advertising in other Western democracies. Growing similarities are due, in part, to the fact that American political consultants have increasingly exported their strategies to parties and candidates in other countries. While this has raised concerns about the “Americanization” of campaigns in places like Britain, Canada, and France, differences in campaign spending laws, party systems, and political culture have kept political advertising in these countries from completely replicating the American model.

Research On Advertising Effects

Scholarly interest in political advertising has produced valuable insights into the nature and strategic use of ads as well as their effect on the public. Political ads have been usefully categorized based on their tone (e.g., positive, negative), approach (e.g., attack, contrast), and substance (e.g., issue, image). This work, along with massive collection and cataloging efforts, has provided the necessary foundation for understanding various aspects of political advertising.

One such area of research concerns the motivations that drive political actors in their strategic use of advertisements. Research has shown, for example, that candidates are more likely to use attack ads when they are involved in a tight race. Otherwise, they are inclined to promote their candidacy with contrasting or positive messages. However, challengers are generally more likely than incumbents to run negative ads because challengers need to make the case for replacing the incumbent. Furthermore, although previous research suggested that candidates avoid discussing issues “owned” by—significantly identified with—their opponent’s party, more contemporary work suggests that candidates may, at times, use ads to engage in issue dialogue, particularly when races are close.

The effect of negative advertising has received considerable scholarly attention. Initially, attack ads were thought to depress voter turnout by decreasing feelings of political efficacy and satisfaction with the electoral process. Subsequent research has argued, however, that negative political ads can actually stimulate participation by providing salient and compelling information while motivating people to act against the concerns raised in the ad. This tension in the literature may be explained, at least in part, by the possibility that low levels of negativity spur participation while a saturation of negative ads drives it down. Furthermore, researchers have shown that the effects of negative advertising likely are conditioned by factors including the source of the negativity and the individual characteristics of voters, such as gender and race.

Researchers also have explored how voters are affected by political advertising more generally. Although most people claim to dislike political ads, a number of studies have shown that ads can be significantly informative. In fact, voters seem to learn more about candidates and issues from political ads than they do from newspaper or television coverage. This is because ads are succinct, shown repeatedly, and designed to be memorable, thus enhancing their reception, particularly among those who may be less interested in other forms of campaign news. However, while people may learn from political ads, the evidence suggests that ads do more to activate and reconfirm political beliefs than they do to persuade people to vote one way or another. This does not mean that political ads have little strategic value. In fact, this solidifying of beliefs seems to be quite important, as evidenced by the finding that, in general, advertising expenditures are positively associated with levels of voter support. Unfortunately, research on the ultimate impact that advertising has on election outcomes has been plagued by difficulties in measuring exposure to ads and controlling other influences in the campaign environment. So, while it is clear that political ads can have some effect on voters, questions remain about their overall role in determining electoral outcomes.


  1. Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Shanto Iyengar. Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate. New York: Free Press, 1995.
  2. Brader, Ted. Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  3. Brians, Craig L., and Martin P.Wattenberg. “Campaign Issue Knowledge and Salience: Comparing Reception from TV Commercials, TV News, and Newspapers.” American Journal of Political Science 40, no. 1 (1996): 172–193.
  4. Franz, Michael M., Paul B. Freedman, Kenneth M. Goldstein, and Travis N. Ridout. Campaign Advertising and American Democracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.
  5. Geer, John G. In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  6. Goldstein, Kenneth, and Travis A. Ridout. “Measuring the Effects of Televised Political Advertising in the United States.” Annual Review of Political Science 7 (2004): 205–226.
  7. Kaid, Lynda Lee, and Anne Johnston. Videostyle in Presidential Campaigns: Style and Content of Televised Political Advertising. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
  8. West, Darrel M. Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952–2004, 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2005.

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