The Effects of Negative Political Advertising
Political advertising has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry in the past few decades. It has come a long way from the newspaper and print era. Now for a candidate to be successful they need to spend a substantial amount of money on television advertisements. The bigger the size of the election is the more money gets spent. For most voters the political issues of the candidates take a back seat to their image because of the lack of education that they have about the candidates. The reason why the average citizen is not informed about the policies is because television advertisements have been overrun by attack ads. It seems to me that most politicians would rather have you think lowly of their competitors than for you to think highly of themselves which perpetuates the notion that we are only voting for the lesser of two evils. In this paper I will attempt to explain the possible reasons why attack ads are becoming more prevalent, as well as the intended effects and the unintended repercussions that attack ads have on the candidate’s image.
The trend of competitors using negative ads has become increasingly noticeable in recent elections. This is due to the highly competitive nature of elections. Advertisers for political candidates will seek votes by any means necessary. One possible explanation for why attack ads are so popular amongst advertisers is because it is easier to discourage someone from voting than it is to get someone to change their political affiliation and vote for their competitor. People are usually given their political affiliation by their parents when they are young and they are not very likely to change it because of a political advertisement. The message being sent by attacking the competitor is that if you are not completely sure that this candidate is the best, you will be harming the country by voting for them. This discourages people who are not educated about candidates from voting. Although negative advertisements might be affective in achieving political advertiser’s goals, they are sending the message that politicians don’t really care about the American public.
Another explanation to why negative political advertising is becoming more widely used deals with technicalities in the legal system. First, the Communication Act of 1934 defined candidate ads as different from product or commercial ads. This meant that broadcasters were able to refuse deceptive advertising ads except in the case of political ads. Second, in 1976 the Federal Election Campaign Act gave individuals and political action committees the right to spend as much money as they wanted to support political candidates, which includes the right to make their own commercials. “These expenditures are different from contributions to a specific candidate's official campaign, which the act limits to $1000 for an individual and $5000 for a political action committee (Maisel).” The court based its ruling on the fact that limiting independent expenditures by citizens was against freedom of speech. Since individual advertisers tend to be more aggressive, their advertisements are usually negative attack ads. (Maisel)
The intended effects of negative ads are basically to establish negative feelings towards the opposing candidate while conversely boosting the positive image of the sponsored candidate. I believe that the first part of this equation is true but I am skeptical about the second part. I think that the reason why negative advertising works is because people are more passionate about voting against something than they are voting in favor of something. Negative ads foster this way of thinking because they typically tackle controversial topics and pick at the opponents weaknesses. For example, in this context, an attack ad that chastises a candidate for supporting the pro choice perspective would be more effective than an ad that supports the pro life perspective because it is deflecting the blame on the opposing candidate. Despite the fact that people usually claim to be annoyed with attack ads, they also rate them as being effective in relation to their decision making (Devlin). This can be attributed to the fact that they succeed in their attempt to not let us forget. A week after we see a negative ad we probably aren’t going to remember how annoyed we were with it but we are going to remember what was said and that is probably going to influence our decision making at least on a subconscious level.
Some examples of attack ads that were extremely successful in making a long lasting impact in the past were the John Kerry “windsurfing ads”. This ad depicted John Kerry windsurfing in different directions attacking his flip flopping or unclear stance on key issues with a quote at the end stating “John Kerry: Whichever way the wind blows.” This commercial succeeded in attacking the credibility of Kerry by illustrating his weakness and at the same time strategically implied that Bush was the stronger candidate despite the fact that Bushes name was not even mentioned in the advertisement. Another example dates back to the early 60’s when Lyndon Johnson was running for president. This ad starts out with a little girl picking the petals one by one off of a daisy and concludes with a massive nuclear explosion. This ad was successful in instilling fear into the American public and convincing them that voting for his opponent would result in nuclear war. Also, a more recent attack ad supporting McCain poked fun at Obama’s celebrity status by comparing him to Paris Hilton. This ad made Obama seem like a fluke and implied that his success was nothing more than a popularity contest. Although this ad may have been successful, it had nothing to do with any issues and was strictly attacking the seriousness of his campaign.
Although attack ads, if done right, can be persuasive, they can also be counterproductive and backfire on the sponsor. People who view attack ads as unethical have the tendency to act in a manner that is contradictory to the sponsors intention because they view them as being untrustworthy or just plain desperate to win the election. It makes them seem like they have to attack the character of their opponent in order to boost their credentials. In a survey conducted in Michigan on the effects of negative advertising in relation to feelings toward the sponsor and the target, the results showed that negative ads produced a strong negative perception of the sponsor but only a slight negative perception of the target and that 75 percent of the people surveyed disapproved of negative attack ads (Garramone). This study proves that the costs of using negative advertising outweigh the benefits.
I personally feel that attack ads are hurting the public’s perception of all politics in general. It is an ethical issue that needs to be examined more closely. Just because negative advertising can succeed at persuading voters doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be used. I think that it undermines our intelligence and is demoting civility amongst our future leaders. This is not something that I want to be associated with. But the fact is that as long as it continues to work it will remain a huge part of political campaigning and people who want to learn about the truth about political candidates will just have to go elsewhere for that information.
L. Patrick Devlin, "Contrasts in Presidential Campaign Commercials of 1988," American Behavioral Scientist 32 (1989): 407.
Louis Sandy Maisel, Parties and Elections in America: the Electoral Process (NY: Random House, 1986), 137-138.
Gina M. Garramone, "Voter Responses to Negative Political Ads"; Stewart, "Voter Perception of Mud-slinging in Political Communication."