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How advertising for political attacks can backfire


A wave of political advertising begins to flood the American media as the November presidential election draws near. A big topic will be attack ads in which a candidate highlights the weaknesses of his opponent. Recent attack reports from President Donald Trump have focused on the mental fitness of his Democratic challenger for the White House, Joe Biden.

While such attacks are firmly anchored in the US political landscape, they have increased in volume in recent years. But our research suggests that they can backfire. We have found that unsubstantiated negative attacks can pique the curiosity of viewers and, in some cases, lead them to the opposite conclusion to what the advertiser intended.

Obamacare attacks

The first part of our current study looked at the impact of advertising to Republican candidates during the 2014 midterm election that attacked President Barack Obama’s flagship health policy.

Opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare, was a key Republican Party’s political stance in the 2014 midterm elections. Almost all Republican candidates sought grass-roots support by attacking Obamacare and pledging to set aside in the event of an election.

In the first part of our study, we analyzed every political advertisement from all candidates for the US House of Representatives and the US Senate during the 2014 midterm elections. Overall, anti-ACA advertisements were broadcast five times more often than pro-ACA advertisements. The negative ads made up a large part of Republican campaigns: 36% of all Republican ads attacked the Health Act. Meanwhile, the Democrats distanced themselves from the issue and only 7.5% of all the ads they aired were about ACA.

The ACA attack reports were rhetorical rather than substantive and did not provide the details of the crime or provide any understandable reasons for their attack on the law. A notable example was the “Creepy Uncle Sam” attack ads, which portrayed ACA as a negative development without much evidence. The producers of the ads we examined seemed to assume that the public had already agreed that ACA was inherently bad and therefore saw no need to present viewers with any further arguments against it.


In the second part of our study, we conducted an experiment in which 50 random people from across the political spectrum were exposed to negative ads of attack via ACA, 50 positive ads about ACA and another 50 were shown no ads. When we subsequently presented information on four policy issues, including ACA, to the three groups, we found that those who had seen the negative health bill attacks were more likely than the other two groups to seek further information. While we found that positive advertising increased curiosity compared to no advertising, it was less effective than negative advertising.

Since the only difference between the three groups was the type of advertisements they were exposed to, we attributed the difference in their curiosity to the types of advertisements they watched. We confirmed that viewers’ curiosity was triggered by exposure to negative information in attack advertising that did not provide clear reasons for the attack.

The underlying theory behind this is the “Information Gap Theory” of US psychologist George Lowenstein, which states that if there is a discrepancy between what we know and what we want to know, we look for more information to close this gap . Republican candidates attacked ACA in their political advertisements without providing sufficient information on why they were against the law. Such advertisements without voter-relevant information have actually piqued the curiosity to find out more.

It’s not just advertising for ACA that backfires. We also tested these results on another group of 150 people who were shown reports of attacks against the Common Core educational standards. Common Core is a set of standards that describe the level students across the United States should achieve in each grade in English and math.

One notice of attack described the implementation of Common Core educational standards as a “disaster”. We found a very similar pattern that coincides with advertising ACA attacks and piqued the curiosity of viewers, leading them to want to gain more knowledge about Common Core.

Not always good advertising

Our experiment also suggested that an increase in anti-ACA advertising might actually lead to an increase in enrollments in the health system. In our data, the average number of anti-ACA advertisements in a state prior to mid-2014 was 5,877, or 22.3% of eligible individuals who signed up for ACA during the registration period between November 2014 and February 2015. Our statistical analysis shows that if the number of anti-ACA advertisements in an average state increases by 1,000 to 6,877, then ACA enrollment in one state could increase 4% to 26.3% in the next enrollment period.

The coronavirus pandemic adds a new layer of complexity to political campaigns in 2020. With election rallies, town hall meetings, and public debates being out of bounds for most politicians, there is likely to be an unprecedented amount of political advertising and outreach on social media and television. Now more than ever, it is important for candidates to develop online strategies to reach and engage with the electorate with effective political advertising.

Our work offers a cautionary note on this current bipartisan environment. The old adage “all advertisement is good advertisement” has to be replaced by “all advertisement is good advertisement, but not necessarily for you”.


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