Busted By the Ad Police: Journalists’ Coverage of Political Campaign Ads in the 1992 Presidential Campaign

By Michael Milburn

A paper by Michael Milburn, spring 1993 fellow, and Justin Brown, analyzes the impact of media outlets’ “Adwatch” features in the 1992 election. Partly in response to the highly emotional negative ad campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988 masterminded by Roger Ailes, many television stations and newspapers developed “Adwatch” features designed to educate viewers/readers about political ads in the 1992 election campaign and hopefully to limit the efforts of the campaigns to manipulate voters with inaccurate and misleading information. What were the effects of Adwatch features on voters? Milburn and Brown hypothesize that if successful, Adwatch content should increase the elaboration of political thought, and in turn, increase the stability of voters’ political preferences and reduce their vulnerability to attitude change. In order to assess the effects of Adwatch, they interviewed political reporters who covered political advertisements during the 1992 campaign, and conducted an experiment. They found that Adwatch content did reduce the influence of the ads, making it an important journalistic development in the coverage of political campaigns.

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