Power of political TV ads overrated

PENN STATE (US) — People tend to over estimate the power of political messages to influence other’s opinions, a new study shows.

In an experiment, people who viewed negative political advertising said the advertisements had little effect on their own opinions, but believed the ads would have a greater influence on others, says Fuyuan Shen, associate professor of communications at Penn State. The findings are reported in the current issue of the Journal of Political Marketing.

“People have a tendency to overestimate the effect media messages have on others,” Shen says. “The perception is that negative messages, like television violence and pornography, in mass media affect others more.”

When the message is socially desirable, such as donating money, the perception is reversed; people think the message has more of an effect on themselves than on others, says Shen.

“There is a gap in perception,” Shen adds.

The exaggerated perception of media power may prompt people to believe that media censorship and campaign finance reform are necessary to limit media influence, according to Shen.

“People have a tendency to overestimate the media’s impact, especially when we don’t necessarily like the message,” says Shen. “And this belief could have larger behavioral implications on censorship and the regulation of media content.”

For the study, researchers showed 129 students negative television advertisements created by MoveOnPac.org for the 2004 presidential election. The ads focused either on then-President George W. Bush’s character or on political issues, such as the Iraq war and the environment.

About 45 percent of the participants identified themselves as Bush supporters and 55 percent considered themselves opponents of the president.

Both supporters and opponents indicated that the effect of the ads on others was significantly greater than their own reaction to the ads, says Shen.

The experiment also indicated that watching more negative ads increased the effect. People who watched from three to five ads perceived that the influence of the advertisements was greater on others compared to people who just viewed one ad.

“The more ads you see, the more you believe that those ads are affecting people,” says Shen.

The researchers tried to create the most natural conditions for the experiment as possible, Shen notes. The experiment featured actual political advertisements and was conducted a few weeks before the election when attention on the election was at its height.

Collaborators include researchers at Penn State and Florida Institute of Technology.

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