Newpaper ad directors see political ads as less honest

Newpaper ad directors see political ads as less honest

Fletcher, Alan D

Ad directors perceive political ads as less honest than ads for other products, including automobiles, tobacco and alcohol. Only 16 percent believe an endorsement affected ad placement by candidates.

Historically, readers have placed great confidence in newspapers’ coverage of the news, particularly political news. I And newspaper advertising directors throughout the United States have claimed to be concerned about the acceptability of and honesty of political advertising appearing in their newspapers.2 In 1994, Ross, Fletcher and Schweitzer found that 85 percent of newspaper advertising directors said their newspapers had stated policies concerning the acceptability of political advertisements.3 That study addressed the approaches that the advertising directors took in enforcing their policies. Of particular interest in the earlier and the current study was the growth of negative political advertising, some of which is considered misleading.

Politicans and researchers have studied the effects of negative advertising, and some researchers have concluded voters found them to be unethical.4

Some research, in contrast, has shown that truthful negative advertising can be as effective as any other political advertising. The danger can come from ads that mislead. In addition, some research has shown that negative ads can damage the sponsor with a backlash effects “The battle with negative campaigns is always the backlash,” says Cheron Brylski, president of the Brylski Company, a New Orleans public relations and marketing firm that specializes in political campaigns. “The public always says that they hate negative ads, but the truth is, they are what seem to get the public’s attention in the final days of the campaign. It definitely works at stalling a campaign, at depressing votes and at confusing voters.”6

Since the 1994 study, the number and ferocity of negative and attack ads seem to have increased.7 Chang, Park and Shim studied the impact that attack ads had on voters in a 1996 study.8 The majority of the 297 respondents who were interviewed perceived attack ads as uninformative and dishonest. However, the study also revealed a significant ability to tar an opponent. When shown a negative ad, 59.3 percent felt negative toward the attacked source, but a nearly equal number (58.9 percent) felt negatively toward the sponsor of the attack ad. Weaver-Lariscy and Tinkham reported that the impact of attack ads on the person attacked “increases substantially” over time and that the person attacked is nearly defenseless to counter the attacks.9

A similar, but somewhat different type of ad is advocacy advertising. The newspaper industry defines advocacy advertising as advertising that “defends or maintains a particular social, economic or political view and is not submitted for commercial gain. Although it may contain a political view, advocacy advertising is distinguished from political advertising by the fact that it does not require a vote by the electorate.”10

According to the broadcasting industry, two types of advocacy ads exist:

* Express advocacy ads primarily advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. Buying advertising for federal elections by candidates and party committees is regulated. Individuals and groups are subject to disclosure laws, and in some cases, their spending is limited.

* Issue advocacy ads appear to promote a set of ideas or policies. Political parties, issue advocacy organizations, corporations, unions and individuals can use this type of ad. Almost no disclosure of the amounts or sources of money involved is required; what is known comes from local radio and television stations’ own sales records or from news reports of interviews with media consultants. These ads differ from general advocacy ads that do not specifically mention an election or political issue.”

Both the legitimate and shady kinds of issue advertising are on a steady upward climb.

The surge in issue advocacy campaigns to support or attack a political issue and the politicians associated with them has generated a great deal of controversy.12 Issue Ads @ APPC, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), points out a common perception of these ads. “Critics maintain that issue ads of this type are ‘thinly-veiled’ attempts to influence the electoral process by organizations that are not legally able to do so.”13

A recent APPC study found that more than 40 percent of issue advocacy ads are “pure attack ads,” and that more than $114 million has already been spent or allotted for issue advocacy advertising for the 1999-2000 election cycle.14

Misleading organization names and campaign finance disclosure loopholes that preserve the anonymity of the donors sometimes obscure the sources behind the funding for these ads. Organizations that fall under Internal Revenue Code 527, as The Center For Responsive Politics points out, “often times, don’t even have to file paperwork notifying regulators of their existence, just as long as they do not make any income besides their solicited contributions.”15

On March 26, 2001, the Senate voted 51 to 46 to broaden restrictions on the airing of issue advocacy ads in the run-up to general or primary elections. The underlying McCain-Feingold bill (S27) banned only unions and corporations from spending for ads that refer to a candidate within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary. This amendment would extend the ban to the scores of non-profit advocacy groups that sponsor political ads, unregulated by federal law, in hopes of electing or defeating specific candidates.16 Some believe the restriction is unconstitutional, but there is widespread agreement that these ads need to be curtailed.17

Television remains the preferred advertising medium for political campaigns, and the Television Bureau of Advertising predicted that sales would soar to $600 million during election year 2000.18 But newspaper advertising is also important, especially in local campaigns. According to estimates by the Newspaper Association of America, “during the `93-’96 cycle [of political ad spending], newspapers typically only saw 2 to 3 percent of these advertising expenditures.”19 But, according to Rust, the citizens who are most likely to vote and participate in political activities are typically the most faithful newspaper readers.20

The purpose of the present study was to determine what, if anything, had changed in political advertising acceptance practices among newspaper advertising directors since 1994. Newspaper advertising directors are the primary gatekeepers in newspaper advertising acceptance practices. This study addresses newspaper advertising directors’ views of political advertisements placed in their pages and their actions upon receiving advertisements for publication.


This study is based on a systematic random sample of advertising directors of 100 daily newspapers listed in the 1999 Editor & Publisher Yearbook. Samples of 100 are relatively stable compared to smaller samples, where each element would have a large effect on the total outcome. Budget constraints precluded a larger sample. To ensure that the sample of advertising directors would be representative of all possible ad directors, the sample was chosen by selecting a starting point at random and then choosing every 15th advertising director. With one follow-up mailing, 50 of the 100 advertising directors responded, for a response rate of 50 percent. Table 1 compares the respondents’ newspaper circulation to those of the population. The 1994 Ross, Fletcher and Schweitzer study surveyed 153 ad directors and had a 48 percent return rate.21

The ad directors were asked if their newspaper supported candidates in the most recent election and whether the endorsement affected the amount of advertising placed by the candidates. They also were asked if their newspaper had run stories evaluating television and/or newspaper advertisements. They were also asked if they had asked for (or required) changes in ad copy and if they had refused to accept a political advertisement. In an open-ended question, the ad directors were asked their opinions as to whether newspaper political advertising in their markets had become more or less negative over the past five years.

The ad directors also responded to several questions that addressed their perceptions of honesty in various categories of advertising within their pages, such as for retail stores, local automobile dealers, tobacco/alcohol, soft drinks, motion pictures and local and state political candidates.

To determine whether changes had occurred, the results were compared with the 1994 results reported by Ross, Fletcher and Schweitzer.22


Evaluation of Political Advertisements

Table 2 compares newspapers’ handling of political advertising in 2000 and 1994. In 2000, some 28 percent of the newspapers ran stories evaluating candidates’ television spots, compared to 29 percent in 1994. The number of newspapers evaluating candidates’ television political advertising in 2000 was virtually unchanged from the number in 1994.

Newspaper Support of Candidates

More than half (56 percent) of the ad directors reported that their newspapers had supported a particular candidate in the most recent local or state election in 2000, but only 17 percent thought the support had had any effect on the amount of advertising by any of the candidates. The ad directors gave several reasons that such support had little effect:

“Candidates usually have their ad plans in place long before our endorsements. Endorsements usually come out last in the process.”

“All our candidates had a budget set up before campaigning began. ”

“Candidates ran consistent ad schedules with the paper and even though they may not have gotten the paper’s endorsement, believed that their ad messages would set voters to choose them. They, of course, complained about the paper taking sides but realized that the paper delivers the voters.”

In 1994, about two-thirds of the newspapers (67 percent) had endorsed candidates for local or state offices. The difference in the number of newspapers endorsing candidates between the two time periods, however, was not statistically significant.

In 1994, virtually the same number of ad directors as in 2000 believed that their newspaper’s endorsements had little impact on the amount of advertising placed by the candidates. In 1994 many ad directors believed that the endorsements occurred so close in time to the election that advertising placements were unaffected. Some found that candidates not supported cut back on advertising while those supported by the newspaper increased advertising in an attempt to capitalize on the endorsement.

Refusal of Political Ads

The number of newspapers refusing to accept political advertisements for any reason remained virtually unchanged from 1994 to 2000. In 1994, only 29 percent of the ad directors reported having refused a political ad. That number was 28 percent in 2000. The reasons for refusing the ads had little to do with ideology and more to do with process. “A candidate attempted to bring new, unsubstantiated political claims the day before the election – no time for his opponent to respond,” said one ad director. “Racial politics” was reason for requiring a modification, said another. Another commented, “… close to libel, slander, unsubstantiated ‘facts.'” Submitting ads too close to the end of the campaign for the 4 refusing ads, according to the ad those given in the 1994 study.

Requiring Changes in Copy

Slightly fewer (64 percent) ad directors in 2000 reported asking for or requiring changes in copy than in 1994 (70 percent). The most common reasons for requiring changes in copy in both studies included unsubstantiated claims and potential libel. In 1994, ad directors were especially concerned that lists of supporters be bona fide as required by law (See “issue advertising,” above.).

Honesty in Political Advertising

How does political advertising compare with other categories of newspaper advertising in terms of perceived honesty? Not very well, as the data in Table 3 show. Not a single respondent thought local or state political advertising was “Very Honest.” That compared with 36 percent of ad directors who rated general retail advertising “Very Honest.” Even at the second level in the five-point scale, political advertising was behind all other categories except advertising for tobacco and alcohol, which tied with 30 percent. Nearly one half of the respondents placed political advertising at the midpoint-considerably worse than any of the other categories. And 18 percent put political advertising in the lowest two positions.

The 1994 results were not much different. In 1994, only 25 percent of the ad directors rated political advertising a “one” or “two” on the honesty scale, compared to 30 percent in 2000. In Table 3, the weighted score for each type of advertising is a summary statistic, (an “Honesty Score”) representing the scores given by those who actually evaluated each type of advertising. The difference between the overall evaluation of political advertising (2.89) and general retail advertising (1.76) was the greatest of all, more than a whole point. The same scores, which were calculated using the data reported in the 1994 Ross, Fletcher and Schweitzer study, showed little change over time for all categories. The difference in the political advertising score between the 1994 study and the current one was three one-hundredths of a point, the difference between 2.89 and 2.86. Both reflected opinions that were much lower than those for retail, soft drink, motion picture, tobacco/alcohol and automotive advertising.

A one-factor, repeated measures analysis of variance of the “honesty scores” shown in Table 4, reveals a significant difference between the ad directors’ responses in 1994 and 2000. The data show that, overall, the ad directors were more positive toward retail, soft drink, movie and automobile advertising in 2000 than in 1994. They were more negative toward tobacco/ alcohol and political advertising. These results are shown in Table 3.

Evaluation of Political Advertisements

Table 4 shows that in 2000, 30 percent of the respondents thought political advertising in their markets had become increasingly negative. In 1994 however, 52 percent thought political advertising had become increasingly negative. Ten percent said political advertising had become less negative, and 38 percent said there had been no change. In 2000, 22 percent of the respondents said political advertising had become less negative, and 44 percent said it had been virtually unchanged. So, it seems that in the year 2000 significantly fewer newspaper advertising directors than in 1994 were inclined to say that political advertising had become more negative over the past five years.


Because of the controversy over political advertising, we thought that it would be instructive to see if newspaper advertising directors-first-line gatekeepers-had become more or less concerned with the honesty of political advertising since the Ross, Fletcher, Schweitzer study in 1994. Although much more political advertising appears on television than in newspapers, newspapers are a major medium for local political advertising.

Results, based on a systematic sample of newspaper advertising directors, suggest that newspaper political advertising is perceived to be slightly less honest in 2000 than it was in 1994. It is certainly safe to say that newspaper advertising directors who participated in this study did not hold newspaper advertising in local and state political campaigns in very high esteem. Not one respondent put political advertising into the “Very Honest” category. Among all the advertising categories the ad directors were asked to evaluate, local retail advertising was rated the most favorably in both 1994 and 2000.

An interesting finding was that two-thirds of the newspapers (67 percent) supported political candidates editorially in 1994. In 2000, only 56 percent of the newspapers supported political candidates. In neither study did the ad directors believe that editorial support for candidates had any appreciable effect on political advertising volume. Nor was there much difference in the number of ad directors who required changes in political advertising copy from one study to the other. The only real, but not statistically significant, difference between the two time periods was in the fewer number of editorial endorsements.

The results of this study suggest that the status of political advertising in newspapers has not changed much since 1994. At least two of the questions raised in the earlier study remain today: in what ways is political advertising perceived to be less honest than other categories of advertising, and do ad directors apply different standards of acceptability for political advertising than for other advertising? Another line of study suggested by this research is to investigate newspaper editorial endorsements of political candidates. Even though the difference between the two time periods was not statistically significant, we wondered why fewer newspapers endorsed candidates in 2000 than in 1994. Is this a trend or is this the result of a simple sampling artifact?


1. Tim Lewthwaite, “Latest Research Confirms Newspaper Strengths, But Other Media Prove More Popular,” Presstime, May 1997, (April 2001).

2. Billy 1. Ross, Alan D. Fletcher, and John C. Schweitzer, “Promises, Promises: Advertising Directors Look at Questionable Political Claims,” Newspaper Research Journal 14 (winter, 1994): 8290.

3. Ibid., 94.

4. Michael Shapiro and Robert H. Rieger, “Comparing Positive and Negative Political Advertising on Radio,” Journalism Quarterly 69 (spring 1992): 135-145.

5. Ronald P. Hill, “An Exploration of Voter Responses to Political Advertisements,” Journal of Advertising 18 (fall 1989): 14-22.

6. Michelle Tirado, “Same Road Map, Different Calendar and Checkbook,” Office. Com, April 2000, (16 April 2001).

7. Lorie Slass, “Issue ADS@APPC,”Ads@APPC The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 2000, (17 April 2001).

8. Wan Ho Chang, Jae Jin Pak, and Sung Wook Shim, “Effectiveness of Negative Political Advertising,” Web Journal of Mass Communication Research 2, December 1998, (17 April 2001).

9. Ruth Ann Weaver-Lariscy and Spencer Tinkham, “The Sleeper Effect and Negative Political Advertising,” Journal of Advertising 28 (winter 1999): 13-30.

10. Newspaper Association of America, “Follow the PAC: Capturing Revenues from Political Advertisers,” Newspaper Association of America Membership Publication, p. 15.

11. Lorie Slass, “Spending. and Defining Political Advertising,” Radio Television News Directors 2000, (13 September 2001).

12. Michelle Tirado, “Same Roadmap.”

13. Lorie Slass, “Spending.”

14. Ibid.

15. Center for Responsive Politics, “Issue Ads,” Center for Responsive Politics, (14 January 2002).

16. “Roll Call Report,” Peoria Journal Star, 1 April 2001, p. A9

17. “Channeling Influence: The Broadcast Lobby and the $70-Billion Free Ride,” Common Cause, (April 2001).

18. “Political Advertising Spending on Local TV Doubles,” Television Bureau of Advertising, 30 March 2000, (13 September 2001).

19. “Follow the PAC,” p. 1.

20. Roland T. Rust, Mukesh Bajaj, and George T. Healy, “Efficient and Inefficient Media for Political Advertising,”Journal of Advertising 13, no. 3 (1984): 45-49.

21. Ross, Fletcher, and Schweitzer, “Questionable Political Claims.”

22. Ibid.

Fletcher and Ross are professors in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and Schweitzer is a professor in the Department of Communication at Bradley Univesity.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2002

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