Communication Televised Political Advertisements
William L. Benoit
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0124


The first political television advertisement was run by Senator Benton of Connecticut in 1950. The first presidential TV spots were broadcast two years later, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson. These messages have become an extremely important means of communication with voters, particularly for higher-level offices. Billions of dollars are spent on political advertising in America. Obama became the first candidate ever to decline federal funding for the general election campaign, which meant he could spend all he could raise; McCain accepted federal funding, which imposed limits on his spending. Television spots are important for several reasons. The candidate has complete control over the content of these messages; the news selects and often interprets information from candidates. Unlike ads, debates include opponents and candidates may face questions they would rather avoid. TV spots also allow targeting of messages by selecting which markets ads are broadcast in and which programs they are broadcast on. In presidential campaigns this is extremely important because candidates in recent campaigns focus advertising on the states which are “in play” (“battleground states”), states with electoral votes that could be won by either candidate. Although it is increasingly easy for citizens with little interest in the campaign to avoid exposure to political advertising (DVDs, the Internet, and most of cable and satellite TV, for example, do not include such messages), TV spots have the greatest chance of reaching voters who do not seek out information on the campaign. Furthermore, with today’s constantly increasing population, candidates running for offices such as senator and governor—and, in the early 21st century, increasingly for lower offices as well—cannot hope to reach a large proportion of constituents without using TV spots. Political groups, such as PACs (Political Action Committees) or 527s (named after a provision of a campaign finance law) also broadcast political advertisements in the United States. Although some countries have laws regulating the use of political television advertising, this message form is also becoming important in other countries besides the United States. Finally, as we will see below, there is no question that televised political advertising has effects on viewers.

Core Texts

Diamond and Bates 1992 discusses presidential ad campaigns from 1952 to 1988. Kaid, et al. 1986 offers overviews of political advertising. Two books present the results of content analyses of presidential campaign advertising: Benoit 2014 and Kaid and Johnston 2001. Franz, et al. 2008 focuses on key issues in political advertising. Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995 created a stir with its argument that negative advertising reduces turnout. Jamieson 1996 provides a rhetorical analysis of presidential advertising. Geer 2006 argues for the value of negative advertising.

  • Ansolabehere, S., and S. Iyengar. 1995. Going negative: How political advertisements shrink and polarize the electorate. New York: Free Press.

    Includes several studies about the effects of negative political advertising, and reports that attack ads increase issue knowledge, are particularly persuasive for Republicans and Independents, and cause disillusionment, distrust of the political system, and decreased turnout at the election polls—particularly for Democrats. Positive ads had the opposite effect.

  • Benoit, W. L. 2014. A functional analysis of presidential television advertisements. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    Reviews the literature on political television advertising from the perspective of the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse. He includes analyses of presidential campaign TV spots from 1952–2012, presidential primary ads, presidential ads from third- party candidates, and non-presidential spots. He also discusses the development of recurrent themes in presidential TV spots.

  • Diamond, E., and S. Bates. 1992. The spot: The rise of political advertising on television. 3d ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Provides a narrative analysis of presidential advertising from 1952 through 1988. Diamond and Bates identify different types of spots and argue that ad campaigns tend to progress through four phases: ID spots (biographical), argument spots (candidates’ stands), attack ads (criticism of the opposition), and vision spots (positive and general).

  • Franz, M. M., P. B. Freedman, K. M. Goldstein, and T. N. Ridout. 2008. Campaign advertising and American democracy. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    This book reports data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors the top media markets for political TV spots. Interest group and party ads are more negative than candidate-sponsored spots. Ads inform citizens about issues and increase trust in government. Attack ads and contrast ads increase political information. Positive ads increase political efficacy whereas negative ads decrease efficacy.

  • Geer, J. G. 2006. In defense of negativity: Attack ads in presidential campaigns. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226285009.001.0001

    Reports that negative ads tend to discuss policy rather than character and attacks are more likely to include evidence than positive statements. Attack ads are more likely to be criticized for deception than positive ads; however, this is due in part to the fact that negative ads are more specific and more likely to use evidence than positive ads, which opens them up to more criticism.

  • Jamieson, K. H. 1996. Packaging the presidency: A history and criticism of presidential campaign advertising. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Offers an historical, narrative, and critical analysis of presidential campaign advertising, devoting a chapter to each campaign from 1952 through 1992. Focuses on television spots but also occasionally discusses newspaper ads and direct mail advertising. A variety of topics, from primaries to financing, emerges in these chapters.

  • Kaid, L. L., and A. Johnston. 2001. Videostyle in presidential campaigns: Style and content of televised political advertising. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    Reports that presidential ads stress issues more than image and are more positive than negative. Emotional appeals are more common than logical appeals. Incumbents tend to use a different set of strategies (e.g., symbolic trappings of the office, accomplishments) than challengers (e.g., calling for change, attacking opponent’s record). Ads in other countries (France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Israel, Korea, Poland) emphasize issues over image and positive over negative ads.

  • Kaid, L. L., D. Nimmo, and K. R. Sanders, eds. 1986. New perspectives on political advertising. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

    This book offers chapters on televised political advertising from a variety of standpoints. Several chapters discuss the history of advertising in America, the content and structure of TV spots (primary and general presidential ads and Senate spots), the role of image in these ads, corporate advocacy, and advertising in other countries.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.