A functional analysis of congressional television spots, 1986–2000

LeAnn M. Brazeal
William L. Benoit


Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on television advertising in congressional campaigns, relatively little research has examined the content purchased by those advertising dollars. This study applied the Functional Theory of Political Campaign Discourse to a purposive sample of television spots from U.S. House and Senate races from 1986 to 2000. Acclaims (self‐praise: 64%) outnumbered both attacks (criticisms: 35.5%) and defenses (refutation of attacks: 0.5%). Policy utterances comprised the bulk of the discussions in the ads (70%), while character utterances appeared less frequently (30%). Past deeds of candidates were the overwhelming focus of policy discussions (81%), while personal qualities dominated the discourse on character utterances (86%). Incumbents had a strong proclivity to acclaim (79%) more than challengers (51%) whereas challengers had a tendency to attack (49%) more than incumbents (21%). Incumbents were more likely to use past deeds to acclaim, whereas challengers used past deeds to attack.