Prof. Franz on the Impact — and Value — of Negative Political Ads

Professor Michael Franz in his office

Professor Michael Franz in his office

Michael Franz, an associate professor of government and legal studies, recently sat down with Busra Eriz ’17 to answer her questions about his research on political ads and their influence on elections. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Busra Eriz ’17: What is Wesleyan Media Project?
Michael Franz: It’s a collaboration of three faculty members — me, Erica Franklin Fowler at Wesleyan University, and Travis Ridout at Washington State University — that collects and codes televised political advertisements. We analyze all the political ads that aired in an election cycle in all 210 media markets across the country. For instance, we look at the amount of negativity in politics. We group ads into three categories: positive/promotional, negative/attacking, and contrasting.

BE: How do you conduct your research?
MF: Even though this project started in 2010, the data from a previous incarnation of the project, Wisconsin Media Project, goes back to 1998. [That’s] nine election cycles, and 15-20 million airings of ads for the last 20 years….We buy the data from a commercial provider. We think the project is a valuable service because in a short amount of time we can make the data available to the scholarly community. Our ultimate goal is to let anybody who wants it have it, so that they can write their own books and articles about the trends in advertising. We try to disseminate our findings widely through www.attackads.org and mediaproject.wesleyan.edu.

Student’s Political Science Research
Computer science major Chris Lu ’16’s has helped collect Twitter data for the Wesleyan Media Project. And senior David Steury is researching campaign finance before and after a landmark Supreme Court case struck down a law limiting donations to politicians.

BE: How do you code an attack ad?
MF: A candidate never runs an ad that says nice things about the opposition. We code on the general tone of the ad, civil or uncivil, [and whether] the ad makes any appeals to anger or fear. These are subjective questions that are much harder to code for. By making our data available in the long run, people can go back and check if the ad should be coded as a negative ad, so in that sense we try to be transparent. Another thing we are working on is adding the transcripts of the ads, so besides watching the ad, people can see the different word usage. There are some buzz words that appear more frequently in positive and negative ads.

BE: Do we need attack ads for a healthy political environment?
MF: Attack ads should exist. The problem is the lack of transparency in politics and how these attack ads are funded. Advertising and being negative is not the problem. If everything was positive you would only see flowers, flowing flags, puppies, and each candidate would portray themselves as good. Negative ads point out flaws. They may not be truthful, but that is not specific to TV ads. Ads can be tiring and make people hate them. It might also allow people to know something about the candidate.

BE: The turnout rates on election day are really low. Do you think attack ads are scaring people away from politics?
MF: I don’t think it has something to do with negative ads. In the mid ’90s, there was a famous book written called Going Negative that made the argument that attack ads were turning people away from voting. Every study made ever since has disproven that argument. If anything, attack ads have no effect on the turnout; at best they might stimulate the turnout to some degree. 2014 had an incredibly low turnout, the lowest since World War II. But in the 2008 presidential election, which was incredibly negative, Barack Obama aired more negative ads then any candidate ever did, and turnout was the highest it had been in four years. There are other reasons for the low turnout: it might be cynicism, people’s dissatisfaction with gridlock — which is an issue about the institutional system of our government — or it could be apathy.

BE: Do you think another reason for the low turnout is that people feel like they don’t have power and impact over politics when they see the amount of money involved with campaigns?
MF: It’s possible, definitely. The amount of anger people have about the cost of elections is high. One of the things that outside groups spend the most money on is TV ads. TV ads are meant to influence us, so the amount of apathy is ironic — a lot of money is spent to influence what we think because what we think is important. If people want the power back over the electoral process, they should own their vote a bit more. Those 64% who did not turn out to vote on Tuesday, they don’t have much power….If, on the other hand, people voted in higher numbers, the game gets reset really fast. If 100% of people voted, it’s impossible for the political actors to know what will happen.

BE: What are some steps that can be taken to make the political scene more transparent?
MF: One thing that needs to happen is more disclosure in campaign finance. There are too many ads on TV that don’t have any disclosure mandates. They just appear, and we have no idea where they got their money. This does a disservice to the voters. There is a lot of research about whether disclosure has any effect on people’s attitudes toward politics. Campaign finance reports should be posted electronically, they should be available to people as soon as they are submitted to federal regulators. That would give people the opportunity to decide what type of groups they want to listen to.

BE: What is the next thing on your project agenda? Are you working on the 2016 election?
MF: We have funding for 2016, so we sleep better at night. We’ve been trying to supplement our data and compare the tweets of the candidates. Chris Lu ’16 did amazing work this summer by writing a computer program that read U.S. Senate candidates’ tweets. We have over 20,000 tweets. We will compare the content of their tweets to the content of their ads to see if there is any difference in the type of messages they are providing. All of our data ads are the ones that are aired on local broadcast stations. Increasingly, candidates are using local cable. They might buy the ad for just the state that they are running in. They adopt targeted methods to reach certain voters. We want to track that to see how they are targeting certain groups. That’s our long-term goal.

BE: Are there any other Bowdoin students working for the project?
MF: Over the last three election cycles, I had over a dozen Bowdoin students who coded ads for research. They really improved the coding.

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