If you’re reading this, or any other newspaper article today, you’re part of a minority group in America: the moderately well-informed voter minority.
If, on the other hand, this paper accidentally fell open on your desk and if you have trouble spelling ‘election,’ you’re part of the vast majority: the “Hey! There’s a bald wrestler running for governor” majority.
For creators of political ads, the latter group is the ideal audience; the less voters know about their candidates, the better ads work. In fact, they work so well that candidates spend 65 percent to 75 percent of their campaign funds on them.
In a lot of races, political ads are all there is, said Ronald Faber, professor of mass communications. “Typically, you don’t get a whole lot of information from political candidates — or from any source,” Faber said.
Most Minnesotans are familiar with the major office candidates like Norm Coleman, Jesse Ventura and Skip Humphrey. But this familiarity often ends with the ability to identify their photos. On a good day, some people might be able to match the candidates with their political affiliation.
The information deficit is what makes political ads, especially those on television, so persuasive.
Voters learn about candidates through advertisements because, many times, there is more information there than in news coverage, said Faber. Political ads are one of the few places where voters get perspectives on issues.
This fall though, there are fewer excuses than usual for being uninformed.
“The news has done a better job this year of really looking at the issues,” said Jennifer Williams, a graduate student in mass communications. She and Christina Fiebich, also a graduate student, are researching political communication in the media for the gubernatorial and congressional elections.
News coverage now is much better than in the 1996 senatorial race between Paul Wellstone and Rudy Boschwitz, said Williams. The amount of coverage hasn’t changed so much as the subject of the coverage, she said. The nightly news and newspapers covered the ideological differences between Wellstone and Boschwitz but stayed away from their views on issues people needed to hear about.
This year, the major local news stations are running a series of ad watches testing the validity of political TV ads.
Mark Dayton’s crime statistics were found to be exaggerated in one of his TV ads. Skip Humphrey’s commercial which negatively depicted Norm Coleman’s comments on farming’s role in the global economy was called deliberately misleading.
More so than in past elections, major candidates are sharing their positions with the public on Minnesota Public Radio’s morning program, evening news spots and public debates aplenty.
Something is missing though — the elections are going too smoothly, too democratically.
“This week we may see some more direct attacks,” said Faber.
But so far, the major party candidates have held back their mud slinging.
“It’s when (candidates) get desperate and when races become tighter” that opponents start getting negative, said Janna Haug, project director of the Minnesota Compact, a political advertisement ethics organization.
“We’re not against negative ads,” said Haug. “You can say something bad about your opponent, as long as its true and not taken out of context.”