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Most 2000 Political Ads Negative: Almost None Funny

March 14, 2005

For Immediate Release
March 13, 2001

Contact Infortmation:
Steve Rabinowitz, Matt Dorf; 202 547–3577
Scott Schell, 212 998–6318
Ken Goldstein, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, 608 263–2390

Most 2000 Political TV Ads Negative; Almost None Funny

Of the nearly one million television ads run last year by federal candidates, political parties and interest groups across America, more than 54% were negative in tone, according to a new analysis of campaign advertising in the 2000 campaign. But when it came to a choice between the messenger and the message, candidates routinely looked to others to do their dirty work.

The largest group of party ads attacked the opposing parties’ candidates, the analysis finds, while a majority of candidate ads promoted the virtues of their sponsors. Overall, of the 839,000 TV ads aired in federal races last year, 54% were negative, with nearly 72% of interest group ads directly attacking one of the candidates.

These findings are the latest in a study of political television advertising by political scientist Kenneth Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The study is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Using data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group (“CMAG”) to monitor political advertising in the nation’s top 75 media markets, reaching over 80 percent of the U.S. population, Professor Goldstein and the Brennan Center analyzed political advertising throughout the 2000 campaign. Every political ad aired in these media markets was reviewed, quantified and coded along an extensive array of variables. Jonathan Krasno, a visiting fellow at Yale University’s Institute for Social and Political Studies, provided additional analysis.

Not funny

University of Wisconsin coders did not find the 2000 political air wars particularly funny. Only 1.3 percent of all ads coded were considered humorous.

Candidate and issue ads last year discussed nearly the same issues and were all concentrated in the period after Labor Day. Thirty-one percent of all ads aired dealt in one way or another with health care. Education was a topic in 27% of ads. And both taxes and Social Security each found its way into 22% of all ads.

I’d like to buy a vowel

Party ads were again heavily concentrated in the media markets and districts in which candidates were most active. Large pockets of the country saw relatively few political ads by any sponsor, while others received wall-to-wall coverage.

Detroit led all other (top 75) media markets this year for saturation of political advertising on behalf of federal candidates. Television viewers there saw a total of 29,509 such ads. Voters in Seattle and Tacoma fared little better, viewing 28,687 of these ads throughout the year. Meanwhile, the Triad area of North Carolina (Greensboro/Winston-Salem/Highpoint) was nearly spared the entire federal election; only 261 TV ads there sought to influence federal races.

Predictably, local news shows drew the most political advertising spots in federal campaigns. But leading the rest of the pack were the syndicated game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. All in all, at least $22 million and 16,587 spots were aimed at Pat Sajack and Vanna White watchers, while 14,880 spots on Jeopardy were the answer clue to the correct question, “how much political advertising for federal candidates interrupted Alex Trebek last year?”

By comparison, America’s Most Wanted in 2000 was not wanted by many American political ad buyers. The FOX program collared only 496 of their federal spots. The syndicated dating show Blind Date hooked up with only 134 of these ads nationally, while its predecessor, the Dating Game, was virtually stood up, with but five political ads for federal candidates during the entire year. Meanwhile, Dateline (NBC) no relation featured 2974 ads. Friends had friends for prime time, anyway 3776. And apparently, not Everybody Loves Raymond 447.

“With prime time so expensive,” explains UW Professor Goldstein, “and so few political advertisers entitled to preferred rates, it’s no wonder that players in federal elections sought out cheaper ways to reach target voters, particularly seniors, by advertising in prime access, the window between local news and prime time.”

Fight, win, fight

Sixty-eight percent of all federal candidate ads in 2000 used positive adjectives to describe themselves, with “fighter” the most popular. In 26 percent of all such commercials, candidates described themselves as fighters. Fewer than three percent called themselves “compassionate.”

And 73% of competing negative advertising employed no descriptors at all.

The findings for the 2000 election cycle build on the Brennan Center’s Buying Time: Television Advertising in the 1998 Congressional Elections, available online at For more information describing the 2000 presidential and congressional races, please contact Ken Goldstein (608) 263–2390, Scott Schell (212) 998–6318 or Jonathan Krasno (212)780–9004.

Tone(s) of ads in federal races by sponsor