Assessing Network TV Ad Watches in the 2012 Presidential Election

By Stephanie Petrich
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 1/3 |


In today’s election atmosphere, Americans are inundated with campaign advertisements during the election cycle. Much research has been done on campaign advertisements, but not much about ad watches. Ad watches are critiques or commentary of political campaign ads, often performed by mass media organizations. This study sought to determine the factors that best explain why media outlets picked up certain political advertisements during the 2012 presidential election. To make this assessment the ad watches of CNN, ABC and FOX News were analyzed. Results revealed that the ad watches by these major networks often involve a specific type of campaign advertisement, feature analyst and anchor critiques, often fact check the campaign advertisements, and use advertisements that do not feature war imagery.

I. Introduction

Everywhere voters turn, it seems they see political advertisements during an election year. The American electorate are constantly plagued by messages from candidates causing voters to tire of the election long before they go to the polls to cast their ballot. The 24-hour news cycle has also played a significant role in contributing to campaign and election news long before election season takes place. With this influx in campaign messages and the 24-hour news cycle have come ad watches. Print or broadcast news outlets typically perform ad watches, in which they fact check and analyze campaign commercials.

Ad watches provide an outlet for the media to discuss key campaign advertisements and provide a check on the factual information presented to voters. In recent elections ad watches have been gaining ground and are more prevalent in the media. There are key ethical practices that many news outlets use when conducting ad watches, such as placing a running announcement along the bottom of the ad to alert viewers that it is being used for an ad watch segment. Ethical practices such as this provide more credibility to the news sources performing the ad watches, and also provides clarity for voters who may be interested in learning about a particular advertisement.

Much research has been done in the effectiveness of campaign advertisements in general, and there is a growing area of research into the analysis of ad watches. This paper highlights some of the key research studies already performed on this area of study as well as adds to this discussion by providing additional research. Prior studies have not provided much attention on the evaluation of the advertisements themselves that major media outlets choose to cover. Therefore, this study analyzed and provided a discussion of similarities found between the ads. Performing this study during an election year provided a perfect environment for this study. The study should be beneficial to media outlets as a critique of the advertisements that they chose to spotlight. Overall, the goal of this study was to provide further insight and encourage future research into this area of study.

II. Literature Review

Ever since the first presidential election, advertising has been an integral part of the campaign process. As media technologies have advanced, the number and importance of advertisements has also grown. In today’s presidential elections, voters are plagued by a plethora of advertisements for each candidate. Over the years scholars have debated the impact these promotions have on voters, and many studies have been done to assess this question. More recently, scholars have examined the role that ad watches play in elections. In this paper, ad watches were limited to assessments of political advertisements performed by media organizations.

After much debate, current scholars agreed that presidential campaign advertisements have a significant impact on voter turnout and political mobilization. Scholars have also come to the conclusion that negative campaign advertisements are more effective than positive advertisements (Brooks, 2006; Cho et al., 2009; Cho, Gotlieb, Hwang, Nam-Jin, & McLeod, 2007; Clinton & Lapinski, 2004; Freedman & Goldstein, 1999, 2002; Lau, Rovner, & Sigelman, 2007; Ridout & Smith, 2008). This research has set the foundation for other scholars to study the effectiveness of ad watches.

The following sections analyzed the evolution of this debate and provided clarity about scholars’ current conclusions on the topic of ad watches. Throughout the sections the author also defined key terms, introduced the theory needed for this research, and reviewed the prior literature.

The Theory of Agenda Setting

Agenda setting theory commonly grounds several studies in communications research. The theory of agenda setting deals with the examination of the role media outlets play in shaping the public’s views and/ or opinions about a situation. McCombs and Shaw were some of the first scholars to study this and paved the path for other scholars to further study agenda setting. This study found that the media play a critical and independent role in determining the political issues people think about (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). As a result of further studies three categories of agenda setting have developed; public agenda setting, media agenda setting, and institutional agenda setting. In this study the author focused on media agenda setting, which examines why and how the public receives the coverage that it does. It deals with everything that affects news coverage, taking into account profit considerations, professional values of reporters, and organization routines. While this study analyzed the media outlets’ choice of campaign advertisements to use for ad watch segments and the characteristics of the ads chosen, the theory of agenda setting was a driving force.

Role of Ad Watches in Agenda Setting

Several scholars have studied the role ad watches play in agenda setting (Bennett, 1997; Fowler & Ridout, 2009; Kaid, McKinney, Tedesco, & Gaddie, 1999; O’Sullivan & Geiger, 1995; Ridout & Smith, 2008; Sweetser, Golan, & Wanta, 2008; Tedesco, Kaid, & Melton McKinnon, 2000). Bennett’s study revealed that “the media’s examination of candidate advertising is selective and strategy focused,” (Bennett, 1997, 1181). Results showed that as ad-related coverage decreased, the cynicism strategy increased; as the format of ad watches changed to include more ads highlighting the campaign process, the types of ads using this strategy decreased; and as ads condemning an opponent increased, the ad watches were increasingly used to counteract false claims (Bennett, 1997). Simply put, ad watches were strategically selected and used to shape the campaign and voters’ attitudes towards candidates. Building on Bennett’s study, Geiger and O’Sullivan found that voters evaluated candidates more positively when an ad watch confirmed their attack ad, and when an ad watch disconfirmed their opponents ad (O’Sullivan & Geiger, 1995). This further proves the effectiveness of media agenda setting through the use of ad watches. In another study researchers found evidence that “media continue to drive the agenda by telling the public and campaigns what to think about,” (Sweetser et al., 2008, 210). Lastly, several studies have discovered that specific components of ad watches impact agenda setting. Common results across these studies include the following: Negative ads were used more frequently than positive ads; general election ad watches appeared within the first ten minutes of the news; if ads were mentioned in a print article, the ads were the sole focus of the article; the more ads aired, the more likely the media was to have an ad watch on them; a larger market size led to more coverage; and Republicans were more likely than Democrats to get ad watch coverage (Fowler & Ridout, 2009; Kaid et al., 1999; Ridout & Smith, 2008; Tedesco et al., 2000). Clearly, ad watches are important and vital to media agenda setting.

Biases Presented in Ad Watches

Since the media are using ad watches to set the agenda, scholars decided to test if there are any biases presented in coverage of presidential election campaigns, including ad watches (D’Alessio & Allen, 2000). Overall, D’Alessio and Allen found no statistically significant correlation between media coverage of presidential elections and gatekeeping bias, coverage bias, or statement bias. However, there were two interesting patterns that emerged. First, there appears to be some difference in coverage of Republicans versus Democrats in news magazines and on TV news, but not statistically significant. Second, newsmagazines are often pro-Republican and TV news is often pro-Democrat (D’Alessio & Allen, 2000). These patterns are worth examining more closely in future studies, and this study’s results would aid this discussion by charting the common characteristics of ad watch coverage.

Content of Ad Watches

Lastly, many scholars have examined the various content of ad watches, and these studies helped guide the author’s study (D’Alessio & Allen, 2000; Fowler & Ridout, 2009; Kaid et al., 1999; O’Sullivan & Geiger, 1995; Ridout & Smith, 2008; Tedesco et al., 2000). Scholars have examined several aspects of ad watches including time it was aired in relation to Election Day, ad tone, the competitiveness of the race, gender of the candidate, presentation of the candidates, and ideological orientation of the ad watch. Results revealed that the closer it was to Election Day, the more ad watches there were, but the number only increased mainly because there was an increase in election coverage overall (Ridout & Smith, 2008). Overall, negative and contrast ads appeared the most frequently in ad watches (Fowler & Ridout, 2009; Kaid et al., 1999; Ridout & Smith, 2008; Tedesco et al., 2000). When campaigns became more competitive there were more ad watches (Fowler & Ridout, 2009; Ridout & Smith, 2008). In regards to the gender of the candidate, a study showed that male candidates received more ad watches than women (Kaid et al., 1999). When it came to presentation of candidates, several studies reveal that Republicans received more ad watch coverage; candidates presented first in the ad watch were more likeable; the focus was more on campaigns during primaries and on candidates during the general election; and challengers received more ad watches than incumbents (Kaid et al., 1999; O’Sullivan & Geiger, 1995; Tedesco et al., 2000). The results of this study would add to this discussion by either further supporting previous studies or adding a nuanced insight if results differ.

Putting it All Together

In conclusion, all of the studies examined set out to explore the role that ad watches play in election cycles and the agenda media outlets set. Together, all the prior studies build on each other, creating a dynamic discussion about the influence and role of ad watches. The replication of these studies would prove vital to this field of study by further supporting prior research or introducing new findings. As ad watches and communication technology have evolved, the agenda setting of media outlets through these ad watches may have also evolved. Base on the review of previous research, one research question was asked in this study: What factors best explain why media outlets picked up certain political advertisements in the 2012 presidential election campaign?

In this study the dependent variable is political advertisements in the 2012 presidential election campaign. The independent variables examined are content of the advertisements chosen by the media outlets, the content of the media outlets’ discussions of the advertisements, and political affiliation of the media outlets (if provided). To perform the study this research analyzed the advertisements themselves as well as of the news outlets’ coverage of the advertisements.

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