How Television Serves the American Electorate: The Message of U.S. Political Advertising
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The most significant finding of this study is that American political ads do not ignore issues. Given the applied definitions of 'image' and 'issues', political spots are found to focus more on issues rather than candidate image. Verbally, American political spots are characterized by a higher number of references to 'matters linked to the national interest' than 'character attributes of candidates'. However, empirical research confirms that the American spots rely heavily on negativity, emotional appeals, announcer's voice-over, particularly to focus on the opponent, and on music, mainly to reinforce emotional appeals and accompany image ads. Sinister or ridiculing music is used in negative ads, uplifting, joyful or sentimental in positive ones. American ads also draw attention away from the sponsoring candidate, resorting to other production techniques than candidate head-on, especially when being negative. Unfortunately, even if American ads do concentrate on issues verbally, their treatment of issues is immensely shallow. Instead of specific policy proposals, viewers receive candidates' issue concerns or vague policy preferences such as 'I favor reformed welfare', 'I want to cut spending', 'I want to give every American a shot at the American Dream'. The ads are more abundant in details when the focus is negative, but even then the accuracy is doubtful due to ads' length. Spero may be right, when he says that the commercial-length ad is 'a perfect vehicle for perpetuating lies and deception'. Recent changes in the U.S. political advertising regulation, requiring that the sponsoring candidate is always present to endorse the ad's message look well set to result in positive changes of advertising content. Under the new law, it will be more difficult to produce and distribute political messages that some consider degrading to the electoral process. Given the voters low levels of political engagement, which seems to be a worldwide phenomenon, TV political advertising is likely to remain the most common means of reaching the U.S. voters with relevant information, at least until the internet becomes ubiquitous.
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