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DISSECTION AND INTERPRETATION OF POLITICAL ADS HELP VIEWERS

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IN 1988 RICHARD Threlkeld did a report for ABC News pointing out inaccuracies in a commercial by George Bush's presidential campaign.

But Threlkeld's message was lost:The commercial was replayed while he did a voice-over. Viewers remembered the ad but not the reporter's words.

To help viewers remember reporter commentary, my research team at the Annenberg School for Communication developed some features of what is now known as Ad Watch journalism, seen on network news. The commercials are now reduced, boxed and identified as such on the screen, and labeled as "true," "correct but . . .," "false" or "misleading."

But in a new book, "Going Negative," Stephen Ansolabehere, associate professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, argue that these techniques did not help voters in the 1992 presidential campaign. Many influential journalists have embraced this view, but they should reconsider the evidence.

In 1992 we asked campaign consultants how Ad Watch reports affected them.

"It was a terrible feeling when I used to open The (New York) Times and they used to take my commercial apart," observed Harold Kaplan, who created spots for Bush in 1992.

Mandy Grunwald, advertising director for the Clinton campaign in 1992, recalled: "I spent more time talking about the latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor and the Bureau of Census than I thought a creative person ever would in her lifetime."

If Ad Watch journalism affected consultants, why didn't it help viewers? Well, it did. And Ansolabehere and Iyengar's studies demonstrate it.

In their study, voters were shown Ad Watch reports that the authors suggested featured inaccurate commercials. If these ad analyses work, voters will have a more negative view of the candidate sponsoring such commercials. But in the study the voters responded favorably.

Before journalists relinquish their role in monitoring advertisements, they should ask: If we can't determine the facts, who can?