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The Forum

A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

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Volume 10, Issue 4 (Feb 2013)


Negative, Angry, and Ubiquitous: Political Advertising in 2012

Erika Franklin Fowler
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Wesleyan University, 238 Church Street, Middletown, CT 06459, USA
  • Email:
/ Travis N. Ridout
  • Corresponding author
  • Associate Professor and Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy, School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Washington State University, Johnson Tower, Troy Lane, Pullman, 99164-4800 Washington, DC, USA
Published Online: 2013-02-09 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0004


Record amounts of money went to purchase television advertising during the 2012 election cycle, resulting in unprecedented volumes of advertising. This increase was due in part to the ease with which outside groups, such as super PACs, were able to raise and spend advertising dollars in the current, post-Citizens United, regulatory regime. Advertising in 2012 was also extremely negative, especially at the presidential level, and frequently evoked the emotion of anger. Yet whether 2012 marks the high point for spending on advertising – and whether the negativity will abate in the next presidential election – remain open questions.


  • Brooks, Deborah Jordan, and Michael Murov. 2012. “Assessing Accountability in a Post-Citizens United Era The Effects of Attack ad Sponsorship by Unknown Independent Groups.” American Politics Research 40 (3): 383–418. [Web of Science] [Crossref]

  • Feltus, William. “Telephone Interview with Travis Ridout.” December 3, 2012.

  • Fowler, Erika Franklin and Travis N. Ridout. 2009. “Local Television and Newspaper Coverage of Political Advertising.” Political Communication 26 (2): 119–136. [Crossref] [Web of Science]

  • Geer, John G. 2012. “The News Media and the Rise of Negativity in Presidential Campaigns.” PS: Political Science and Politics 45 (3): 422–427. [Web of Science] [Crossref]

  • Kay, Tim. “Telephone Interview with Travis Ridout.” December 12, 2012.

  • Lau, Richard R., Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner. 2007. “The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment.” Journal of Politics 69 (4): 1176–1209. [Crossref]

  • Napoli, Philip M. 2011. Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences. New York City: Columbia University Press.

  • Ridout, Travis N., and Erika Franklin Fowler. 2012. “Explaining Perceptions of Advertising Tone.” Political Research Quarterly 65 (1): 62–75. [Crossref] [Web of Science]

  • Ridout, Travis N., Michael M. Franz, Kenneth M. Goldstein and William J. Feltus. 2012. “Separation by Television Program: Understanding the Targeting of Political Advertising in Presidential Elections.” Political Communication 29 (1): 1–23. [Web of Science] [Crossref]

  • Roebuck, Jeremy. “With Little Return on Big ad Buys, Campaign Strategists Rethinking for 2014.” Philadephia Inquirer, December 4, 2012. Accessed December 14, 2012. http://articles.philly.com/2012-12-04/news/35572519_1_sunlight-foundation-pacs-tv-ad.

About the article

Erika Franklin Fowler

Erika Franklin Fowler is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and Co-Director of the Wesleyan Media Project. She specializes in political communication – local media and campaign advertising in particular – and her work on local news coverage of politics and policy has been published in political science, communication, law/policy, and medical journals.

Travis N. Ridout

Travis N. Ridout is Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy and Associate Professor in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at Washington State University. He is also co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. He is author of The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising (Temple University Press, 2011).

Corresponding author: Erika Franklin Fowler, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Wesleyan University, 238 Church Street, Middletown, CT 06459, USA

Published Online: 2013-02-09

The analyses presented here are based on ongoing coding, which is 97% complete for presidential airings between April 11 and Election Day, 2012, and 88% complete for congressional (House and Senate) airings between June 1 and Election Day, 2012.

Only about 68,000 of those spots aired on national television at a cost of $350 million.

A difference in cost per ad could also result if the campaigns systematically chose to air their ads at different times of day, during different programs that drew larger or smaller audiences, or due to paying premiums for non-pre-emptible time. While the campaigns did target different audiences, there no evidence that, say, Obama was buying a ton of cheap ads at 2 a.m. while Romney was buying expensive prime-time ads.

Note that no data are available for 2006.

Citation Information: The Forum, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/forum-2013-0004. Export Citation

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