The slogan “I agree” in political ads could do just the opposite of what Congress intended – Mother Jones
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New research shows that including the latter type of slogan in a candidate’s advertisements – as required under the Bipartite Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also known as McCain Feingold) – actually increases the credibility of advertisements that score or die attack a rival’s political position.
“Far from deterring negativity in advertising, the tagline actually made it surprisingly effective.”
“When that tagline is added to political ads, people will believe more in the content of the ads for several reasons,” said Clayton Critcher, co-author of the study, associate professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. “This is especially true of ads where people start out with the greatest skepticism, and these are exactly the ads that do [Congress was] try to discourage: negative ads. The addition of the tagline took the negativity in advertising far from discouraging negativity, but actually made it surprisingly effective in increasing the truthfulness of these messages. “
It is an ironic result indeed, considering that McCain-Feingold’s “Stand By Your Ad” provision was intended to discourage negative campaigns. “Guess what,” said Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) In a 2004 speech announcing a temporary reduction in negative publicity after the crime. “Every time there is a message, the candidate says, I am so and so and I agree to this ad. They would not approve of a lot of rubbish and negative attacks – which, as we all know, has an effect of lowering voter turnout. “
In fact, negative advertising has grown in prominence in the years since McCain Feingold went into effect, Critcher says. In a peer-reviewed study published this month in the Journal of Marketing Research, Critcher and associate Minah Jung, assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, conducted years of research that looked into how that slogan came about can affect a person’s perception.
For the four mini-studies covered in their article, Critcher and Jung recruited nearly 2,000 study participants from universities and through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program. Groups of Participants were presented with real-world advertisements that were used in congressional races from 2006 to 2010, as well as fictional advertisements that the researchers created using “snippets” of real-world advertisements that were pieced together into a generic structure. One setup included positive and negative TV spots by Democratic and Republican candidates – the “Stand By Your Ad” tagline was removed from half of the ads.
“Even people we tend to be suspicious of … when they make promises, we almost automatically react with greater confidence.”
The researchers found that the slogan “I agree” with both real and fictional advertisements had a significant positive impact on the perception of negative political advertisements. (The effect was less if the ad was positive or if the candidate personally attacked a rival.) “We find that part of the problem comes from the approval language itself,” says Critcher. “People take that as an implicit promise that [the candidate is] really say that what [the ad is] saying is true. “
The credibility boost was similarly strong when the subjects were told that the ads had not been reviewed by regulators – which is true. “We made it clear to half of the participants (and repeatedly reminded them) that the Federal Electoral Commission did not evaluate the content,” write Critcher and Jung. Even subjects who acknowledge that the slogan “Stand By Your Ad” does not reflect the truthfulness of an ad were significantly influenced, according to the newspaper.
Critcher, a psychologist who studies judgment and decision-making, explains that this finding has to do with the way our brains process information. “Only psychologically are promises really powerful,” he says. “Even people we tend to be suspicious of or have reason to be suspicious of – when they make promises, we almost automatically react with greater trust and belief in what they say.”
Even more powerful, however, is what Critcher and Jung call “regulatory legitimation”. For another test, they created a “placebo” slogan – “My name is X and I’m running for Y” – that was narrated by voice actors and compared it to the Stand By Your Ad slogan. If control subjects were not told about regulation, policy advertisements with the language “I agree” were considered more credible than those with a placebo slogan or without a slogan. But when another group of subjects was told that both slogans were the result of a government request, the two types of slogans gave an equal boost in credibility.
The reason for the boost, Critcher says, is because people realize that an ad has been touched in some way by a legitimate regulator, regardless of whether or not the regulator checked the message. The results remind him of the debate about whether the Food and Drug Administration should regulate tobacco products: “One of the concerns was that people might only perceive tobacco products as more legitimate or more legitimate if the FDA was given these limited regulatory powers to be safer or more generally endorsed . “
So what’s next? Critcher doesn’t think politicians are aware that saying “I agree” makes the negative palatable. But it could be them now. In their paper, Critcher and Jung propose a number of measures that could dampen the boost in credibility: For example, non-partisan groups could educate voters through simple, easily digestible candidate comparisons. Or the mandatory slogan could be changed from “I approve this news” to something more neutral like “I am Joe Blow and I am running for Congress”.
“Advertising can influence voting preferences, but the effects are often small. “
Jon Krosnick, who heads Stanford’s political psychology research group, called the paper an “impressive article” after reviewing it at Mother Jones’ orders. However, he mentions two “significant” limitations. Since the subjects were recruited by universities and Mechanical Turk, “they are not a representative sample of American voters,” Krosnick said in an email. (A 2015 blog post in the Washington Post outlines this debate.)
Nor is Krosnick convinced that the way people perceive campaign ads reflects the way they vote. He points to research by Donald Green, professor of political science at Columbia University, which shows that negative political advertising has minimal, even fleeting effects. “There is no basis here to know whether the slogans examined have a significant political or electoral influence, ”he says.
John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, had similar concerns. “Advertising can influence voting preferences, but the impact is often small and it is not clear that this impact depends heavily on subtle features of the advertising, such as: [Stand By Your Ad]“He wrote in an email.
Still, as peak season approaches, it may be appropriate for policy advisers to take note of Critcher and Jung’s results. Although real variables are different from experimental variables, the results suggest that it may not be in a candidate’s best interest to hit her fist – as long as she “confirms” the message. “We found that the impact was about as large, or in some cases greater, than the partiality,” says Critcher. “It’s pretty effective.”