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Wisconsin Advertising Project analyzes tone of ads in White House race

October 16, 2008 By Dennis Chaptman

During the Wednesday (Oct. 15) presidential debate, both candidates made claims about the tone of the other’s television advertising campaign.

Barack Obama argued that all of John McCain’s advertising has been negative and McCain countered that Obama has aired more negative ads than anyone in history — and that he can “prove it.”

The Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, using data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, has tracked and analyzed the targeting and tone of presidential advertising in the last four presidential campaigns. So, what does the evidence say? Was Obama correct? Did McCain prove it?

Political science professor Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project, offers this perspective:

“Analysis from the Wisconsin Advertising Project of Sen. John McCain’s television advertising for the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4 shows, in fact, that all McCain campaign TV advertising did have significant negative content — either spots that were comprised completely of attacks on the Democratic nominee or ones that combined attacks on Sen. Barack Obama with some talk about Sen. McCain’s own plans.

“We reported this finding in a press release last week that was widely publicized and this was clearly the number that Obama was citing in last night’s debate. That said, McCain’s advertising has not been completely negative over the course of the entire campaign. Looking at the tone of all of McCain’s advertising from June 4 to Oct. 4, we found that 47 percent of the McCain spots were negative (completely focused on Obama), 26 percent were positive (completely focusing on his own personal story or on his issues or proposals) and 27 percent were contrast ads (a mix of positive and negative messages).

“But what about Obama? Our analysis reveals that 39 percent of all general election Obama TV ads have been positive (solely about his record, positions or personal story), 35 percent have been negative (solely focused on McCain) and 25 percent have been contrast ads — mixing a bit of both. So, on a proportional basis, the McCain campaign is and has been more negative than Obama.

“But, Obama has aired over 50,000 more ads than McCain. So, hasn’t he simply aired more of everything — including negative ads — than McCain has this year, or than anyone in history, as McCain may have alleged?

“If one just looks at pure airings of negative ads, McCain has aired more than Obama. If one allocates contrast ads as half positive and half negative or considers contrast ads as negative — as the Advertising Project does — the tone of the McCain and Obama campaigns has been absolutely identical.

“According to some press reports, the McCain campaign is backing up its claim with an analysis of TV ad spending from Sept. 12 to Oct. 11 that shows that Obama spent more on negative ads than McCain during this time period. Does that analysis mean that the Obama campaign has aired the most negative ad campaign in history? Well, since, there was no television for most of history and we only have systematic data since 1996, we’ll have to restrict our analysis to the last four contests.

“And it was in 1996 that former Sen. Bob Dole aired the greatest proportion of negative ads in recent presidential elections. Seventy percent of his ads in his contest against then-President Bill Clinton were pure negative spots and 12 percent were contrast. In 2004, 60 percent of President Bush’s ads were negative and 12 percent were contrast. Multiplying the proportions by ad expenditures in 2004 reveals that the Bush campaign aired the greatest number of negative ads in recent history and spent the most money doing so. While there are still three weeks left in this contest, President Bush in 2004 has the record for the most number of negative spots aired in a race.

“Negative advertising does not always work. Witness the apparent lack of effectiveness of the recent McCain barrage of negative spots trying to tie Senator Obama to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. Furthermore, even with all the attacks on political advertising in general, and negative advertising in particular, there is strong empirical evidence that voters can learn from advertising. What they don’t learn much from is whining about negative advertising.”