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MU Communication Professor says that Presidential Candidates' Ads are More Positive than Predecessors

Jan. 23, 2008

Story Contact:  William Benoit, (573) 882-0545,

COLUMBIA, Mo. - As the 2008 presidential primary nears Super Tuesday, airwaves are being flooded with television advertisements, with both negative and positive elements. William Benoit, a professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri, has analyzed the content of 114 Democratic and 89 Republican television advertisements and found that candidates are being more positive than they have been in the past.

  The tone of most statements in the ads was positive: 

  • 81 percent positive (and 19 percent attacks) in Democratic ads
  • 82 percent positive (and 18 percent attacks) in Republican ads

 So far, these ads are more positive than in previous years. Primary television spots from 1952-2004 used positive statements in only 72 percent of ads. 

“It’s important to note that other research has consistently found that news reports of presidential campaigns tend to focus on the negative, so the campaign may appear more negative than it really is,” Benoit said. “Also, data are not available on how often each ad is broadcast, so ads with the most attacks could be broadcast more often than other spots.”

The general topics of the ads also were similar: Democrat and Republican TV spots discussed policy in 60 percent of statements and character in 40 percent. Emphasis on policy is more pronounced now than in previous years (1952-2004), when 54 percent of TV spot statements addressed policy and 46 percent addressed character.

The greatest differences arose in specific issues. Democrat ads discussed the war in Iraq, health care, education, environment, Social Security and economy/jobs more than Republicans. In contrast, GOP television spots talked about immigration, taxes, terrorism, abortion and crime more often than Democrat ads.

Benoit said that this relative emphasis shows that candidates from each party are appealing to their base. Recent ads from Democrats appear to stress health care more, and Iraq somewhat less, than earlier ads. This suggests that the candidates also may be reacting to the idea that the importance of the war in Iraq may be dropping for some voters.

Benoit has been a MU faculty member since 1984. He is the second most published scholar of all time in significant communication research journals. Benoit is the author of several books on political campaigns, including Communication in Political Campaigns (2007).