There's not much to like about negative political ads. For weeks before every election, smarmy politicians dominate the airwaves with apocalyptic pronouncements about what will happen if the other guy wins. (Impeachment! Corruption! War!) The spots are simplistic and gloomy–and are usually riddled with half-truths, factual distortions, and outright fabrications. (See: Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine's now-infamous doctored video of the burning World Trade Center towers, which U.S. News spotted in July.) Most viewers watch the ads with disdain, vaguely aware that what they're being subjected to is little more than propaganda.
But here's the thing about attack ads: They work–much better, even, than many voters think. Conventional wisdom has it that negativity just preaches to the choir, reinforcing the support of voters who have already decided whom to vote for, while leaving partisans on the other side unmoved. According to a new paper, though, "Confirmation and the Effects of Positive and Negative Political Advertising," by a group of marketing professors from Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business and the University of Texas–Dallas, negative political ads are also surprisingly effective at swinging voters toward their sponsor. In a study conducted in the final weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign, researchers found that negative ads caused 14 percent of viewers to change their minds about their favored candidate.
"People who use negative ads have long been convinced they work," says coauthor Joan Phillips, a professor of marketing at Mendoza. "Academics have just had a hard time proving it."
Until now, it seems. In the last few weeks of the 2004 presidential elections, the researchers asked a group of 145 marketing majors at Notre Dame to rate their commitment to either candidate on a seven-point scale–"Definitely Kerry" to "Definitely Bush"–then had them watch a series of candidate-sponsored advertisements, positive and negative. Afterward, the students were asked to evaluate the ads and rate their voting intentions once again.
At first glance, their responses seemed to jibe with earlier research. Many students dismissed the negative ads out of hand for being less persuasive and influential than the positive, pro-candidate versions. There was also an expected backlash to the negative spots: 3.3 percent of students became less supportive of their candidate after viewing his negative ads.
As irate as they made viewers, though, the attack ads were surprisingly effective. After watching a negative ad sponsored by the opposition, 13.8 percent of viewers became more fervent defenders of their own candidate. But, surprisingly, the same number of viewers–13.8 percent–moved closer, on the seven-point scale, to the candidate they had previously opposed. Put another way, if 100 Kerry supporters watched a Bush-sponsored negative advertisement lambasting the senator for, say, "flip-flopping" on his opposition to the war in Iraq, 14 of those viewers tended to close ranks and support Kerry even more. Another 14 Kerry supporters who saw the ad moved closer to Bush.
Negativity, in other words, may bring more bang for its buck than previously thought. Positive ads certainly don't seem to have anything close to the same effect on viewers from the opposing side. (In the study, after watching a positive ad from an opposition candidate, only 5 percent of viewers moved closer to the ad's sponsor; the ad's effect on supporters was nonexistent.) Negative ads do have some costs, of course. But the fact that some voters end up more partisan as a result of a politician's going negative is a small price to pay, it seems, since those voters were most likely lost to the other side anyway.
The political implications of these findings are clear: "The goal of any campaign strategist is to get people into that undecided category," says Phillips. "When we're talking about millions of voters in a presidential election, a couple of percentage points is a huge shift."
The best way to win those hearts and minds, oddly enough, may be to go negative–early and often. It certainly won't make watching TV over the next few weeks any more pleasant, of course. But hate 'em all you want. Negative ads seem to work.
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