Of the onslaught of political advertising that ran in the 2012 presidential election, a surprising 70 percent was negative.
Even though voters overwhelmingly claim that they dislike how ugly American campaigns have become, negative ads remain a constant component in every political campaign. The longstanding question is whether these attack ads are effective.
Some people believe that negative ads turn voters off, which influences them to tune out and stay home. It would be unfortunate if exposure to negative campaigns bred widespread cynicism and antipathy toward politics and a decline in political efficacy.
Other people believe that negative ads may have a positive effect on voter turnout. This belief stems from the idea that negative advertising is more informative and memorable than positive advertising. Voters are inspired to seek out more information about issues that negative ads touch on. By facilitating candidate image differentiation and attitude polarization, negative ads may help voters feel more confident about their voting decisions and consequently intensify their involvement with politics.
Copious research has been done to examine the effects of negative political advertising on the political process. Some studies examine the impact of negative ads on citizens’ attitudes toward politics; some investigate the effects of negative ads on the political process; others explore the roles of sponsor and rebuttal in negative advertising.
Daniel Stevens’ paper includes a five-page table that effectively summarizes the major studies that have been performed on the influence of advertising tone and turnout since 1990. Most studies consist of an experiment, survey, aggregate analysis or a combination of those research designs.
In all studies, there is a measure of tone to distinguish what is deemed a negative ad. The findings for the studies were mixed. Many found that negative ads are associated with higher turnout, while some found that negative ads had no statistically significant impact on intended turnout. Very few studies found that negative ads depress intended turnout.
I read three recent articles to get a better idea of the depth of research done on negative political advertising.
Jackson, Mondak and Huckfeldt examined whether negative ads produced corrosive effects on mass attitudes of politics. Their research was based on the idea that “it is reasonable to surmise that exposure to such ads will lead citizens to think less not only of the candidates in a given election, but also of politics and government more broadly” (56). Their null findings across multiple studies using multiple data sets and methods concluded that there is no empirical support for the case against negative ads.
Gina Garramone looked at sponsor and rebuttal factors to determine how negative advertising influenced the perceptions of candidates and vote intentions. She found that independent sponsorship (i.e. ads paid for by independent organizations) was more effective than candidate sponsorship, “resulting in greater intended effects against the targeted candidate and lesser backlash effects against the opponent” (157). Her findings suggest that independent advertising may play a significant role in the future of political campaigns.
Garramone, Atkin, Pinkleton and Cole focused on the impact of various combinations of negative and positive political commercials on five variables important to the political process: candidate image discrimination, candidate attitude polarization, involvement in the election, communication behavior regarding the election and likelihood of turning out to vote in the election. They found that significant effects emerged for candidate image discrimination and attitude polarization, but not for the other variables.
The array of research done on this multifaceted topic remains inconclusive. Perhaps this is because there are so many different factors involved that not all can be adequately measured.
Almost all studies recommended future research to be done, and oftentimes a limitation of a study was that it used a sample composed of college students that is not representative of the electorate.
It is clear that more research must be conducted to fully understand the complex effects of negative political advertising. This topic will continue to be relevant and prevalent, even in the ever-changing world of politics.