Do negative campaign ads work?
20 April 2011 3 Comments
Are voters turned off by negative campaign ads and mudslinging? Some say they are yet it doesn’t stop political candidates or parties from using them. Do we know the evidence about whether negative ads work or do we use them hoping they will work, or because we all know a good negative ad which did work? The results from the research may actually help inform and improve our campaigning.
Research on negative campaigning and negative campaign advertising has produced some conflicting results. Some studies suggest that negative campaign ads are more easily remembered and therefore have a greater influence on voters’ attitudes and vote decisions. Other research, however, provides evidence that the opposite is true. Moreover, while some research suggests that candidates who run negative ads are more likely to win, other research suggests that running negative ads makes a candidate more likely (or at least equally likely) to lose. There are also conflicting conclusions about the effect of negative advertising on voter turnout–some research concludes that negative campaigning depresses turnout while other findings suggest that intense competition (often characterized by negative campaigning) enhances voter turnout. For an excellent review of this research see The Effectiveness of Negative Political Advertisements: A Meta-analytic Review.
While the research on negative advertising in political campaigns is not clear the conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that negative ads do work. That is, while voters might not like negative ads, their perceptions of candidates attacked in negative ads are tarnished by the information they are exposed to. But that is not to say that they should be used wholesale as there are significant downsides and risks to using them. So what can we learn from the research to improve our campaigning?
- Overall, negative political advertising produces negative evaluations of both the sponsor and the target.
- 87% (in one survey) of people are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today’s political campaigns
- Voters distinguish between what they feel are fair and unfair “attacks” in a political campaign.
- At least 57% (in one survey) believe negative information provided by one candidate about his or her opponent is relevant and useful when it relates to the following:
- Talking one way and voting another
- Not paying taxes
- Accepting campaign contributions from special interests
- Current drug or alcohol abuse
- His or her voting record as an elected official
- At least 63% (in one survey) indicated the following kinds of information should be considered out of bounds:
- Lack of military service
- Past personal financial problems
- Actions of a candidate’s family members
- Past drug or alcohol abuse
- Both younger and older people agreed that negative political advertising is not informative, but older people consider negative political advertising as less believable and have more negative attitudes toward the sponsor than younger people.
- Negative political advertising is more effective with lower income voters. They perceive negative political advertising as more informative and more believable and had more positive attitudes toward the sponsor than higher income level voters.
So voters do not treat all negative information equally and while negative ads have the capacity to weaken political support for a candidate’s opponent, being negative in a campaign can also diminish the attacking candidate’s stature among voters, producing a “backlash” effect, especially when that information is not perceived by voters as relevant to the campaign.
The rule is never use negative campaign tactics unless your have to. You only have to if you feel cannot win simply by presenting positive information about yourself.
Candidates most likely to use negative ads are challengers. Incumbents have generally spent years building positive images of themselves among voters. The longer an image of a candidate is maintained in the minds of voters, the more difficult it becomes to change that image. A challenger hoping to unseat an incumbent must provide evidence that the positive images voters have of their opponents are inaccurate.
The choice that candidates have to make is whether the negative information they want to emphasize in a campaign against an incumbent is important enough to voters to make them disavow their opponents and support them instead. When a negative ad aims at something outside of the bounds of what voters consider to be relevant and fair, the effects just might be opposite of what was intended.