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Campaign ads scrutinized

Analysis says most presidential hopefuls’ spots are positive.
Wednesday, September 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:43 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Fall TV season is here, but MU communications professor Bill Benoit is tuning in for the new season of political advertisements — and handing down judgment.

Benoit, nationally known for his research on political campaign ads, analyzes and records information about what candidates target in their ads, and how they go about it. He then compares candidates’ strategies.

Right now, he’s studying 2004 presidential primary television spots — generally calling them positive if they don’t attack a policy or an opponent and negative if they do.

So far, he has found that:

71 percent of the candidates’ statements were positive.

80 percent of Dick Gephardt’s statements were positive.

64 percent of Howard Dean’s statements were positive.

74 percent of John Edwards’ statements were positive.

Almost two-thirds of the ads addressed foreign policy, taxes, jobs, health care and education.

Gephardt discussed issues 50 percent of the time.

Dean discussed issues 76 percent of the time.

Edwards discussed issues 50 percent of the time.

Candidates attacked President Bush five times more often than they attacked Democratic opponents.

Benoit said the ads help citizens improve democracy because they reach all types of people, especially voters who do not seek out information about candidates .

Benoit, whose fifth book will be published in about a month, is taking the year off from teaching to write a sixth book that summarizes his research over the years.

“Only six other communications scholars in the world have been published more than me,” he said. “And, the ones that have published more than me are all older than I am.”

MU communications graduate students assist Benoit in his research. Together they analyze the TV spots by dividing them into statements — generally those that make specific points. Then the points are weighed as positive or negative.

Benoit said it takes about 10 or 15 minutes to analyze a 30-second ad and much longer to analyze debates.

Jeff Pasley, speaking as a voter, said he thinks Benoit’s results are useful. “But I hope that people don’t vote on something because it is positive or negative, because there are all different types of negativity,” said Pasley, a history professor at MU. “If there is some serious problem (with a candidate) you’d want someone to tell you about it, but that ad would be considered negative.”


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