The effect of negative political advertising has been a point of contention for some time. Ever since the growth of television in the 1950s, advertisements have tried to influence viewers for whatever cause, product or idea they are presenting. Negative political ads erupted onto the scene for the first time in 1964 with President Johnson’s “Daisy” ad featuring a nuclear explosion, encouraging voters to turn out because “the states are too high” not to. In more recent times, political ads continue to appeal to citizen’s fears and anxieties to sway their opinions and often do this by picking and choosing what information to include in ads and how that information is presented. While many researchers believe that negative appeals in ads demobilize voters and decrease turnout, others disagree and claim the opposite (Ansolabehere et all, Goldstein and Freedman). Along with turnout, there is also more debate about how information presented in ads mentally effects voters even before they turn out (or don’t turn out) to the polls.
Daniel Stevens explores informational effects of negative advertising and takes a look at whether or not it provides voters with more or less information about candidates and their policies for elections and how it affects their judgments when making decisions. He argues that the impact on individuals varies based on their ability or motivation to process the content of ads, and he claims that this is due to different levels (high or low) of political sophistication. Defining these his two categories through a combination of political interests and knowledge, he classifies highly sophisticated individuals as those who are engaged and knowledgeable about in politics and lower sophisticated ones being less knowledgeable and engaged. Stevens says that negative ads have an emotional impact that is reflected by depressing people’s public mood – how a person feels about the society in which people live. Because of this, his theory also states that high sophisticates are able to realize that the less than positive sentiments created by negative ads have nothing to do with political judgments they should make and tune them out. Instead, they actually process information in the ads. On the other hand, low sophisticates’ negative emotional response to ads inhibits their motivation or ability to process information and either gain virtually nothing from the ads or lose information. Thus, this creates a gap in information between the two groups (Stevens).
In my analysis of Stevens’ findings, I’d like to agree with him on most accounts but suggest consideration for some alternative perspectives. His idea that these ads spark negative emotional reactions is accurate. Negative ads mostly talk about bad policies one candidate implemented – or wants to implement – and how they hurt people, the economy, etc. I also can agree that high sophisticates are able to separate their feelings from actual information because they acknowledge the purpose of the ad, and the same goes for low sophisticates and leads to an information gap; however, I think there is more to this.
Another consideration for Stevens to make would be that those who are highly politically informed simply don’t pay as much attention to the information in negative ads because they are privy to their purpose to sway people’s opinions. They know information is often taken out of context and that the whole truth is not stated to play with their emotions. This also leads to lower effectiveness of the ads ability to influence these people. In addition, as high sophisticates are more politically engaged, they are more likely to go investigate information presented in negative ads to check their accuracy. Getting facts straight is important to these people to become more knowledgeable and make better informed decisions about their views and at the polls. Sure, their public mood may be negatively affected, but those negative sentiment motivate them to discover the truth and convey it to others. Conversely, individuals who are less informed and engaged are more likely to simply take these kinds of appeals at face value and believe whatever they are presented with. I think negative ads are targeted to these kinds of people because they don’t think for themselves as much in the political sphere and will therefore believe what people tell them. These factors lead to not only an information gap that Stevens refers to, but a gap information that is truly accurate.
Ansolabehere, Stephen et al. “Does Attack Advertising Demobilize the Electorate?” American Political Science Review. Vol. 8. December, 1994. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2082710
Goldstein, Ken. Freedman, Paul. “Campaign Advertising and Voter Turnout: New Evidence for a Stimulation Effect.” The Journal of Politics. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0022-3816.00143/pdf
Stevens, Daniel. “Separate and Unequal Effects: Information, Political Sophistication and Negative Advertising in American Elections. “ Political Research Quarterly. 2005. http://prq.sagepub.com/content/58/3/413