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Why negative political ads work


Shawna Shepherd / CNN

Newt Gingrich, who was campaigning with his wife Callista in Iowa, was the target of negative publicity.

Story highlights

Ruthann Lariscy: Negative ads are a must for any presidential campaign now

Most people say they don’t like negative ads, especially certain types of them, Lariscy says

So why are they becoming more common? Because they are very effective, she says

Unless you live in a cave, you probably aren’t immune to its effects, Lariscy says

Editor’s Note: Ruthann Weaver Lariscy is a professor in the Advertising and Public Relations Department at Grady College, University of Georgia. Her research on politics and health promotion is published in scientific and specialist publications.


Negative ads in Iowa constituencies are just the tip of the iceberg. If there were reservations about slinging mud three electoral terms ago, negative advertising in 2012 is a must in every political election campaign.

Lots of people say they don’t like how ugly American campaigns have gotten. In fact, some research examines whether political apathy and aversion are associated with increasing negativity. But the evidence is inconclusive – about as many of us seem to be entertained by attack reports as they are being taken out by them.

Most of us say we don’t like negative ads, especially certain types of them. The highly unpopular ads include ads that are considered too personal or that cast a negative light on a family member. Placing an ad that criticizes Newt Gingrich’s three marriages, for example, borders on dangerous.

Ruthann Lariscy

Ruthann Lariscy

The danger is that if people judge the attacking candidate as “too dirty”, the ad is very likely to boomerang – that is, more voters turn against the attacker than the attacked candidate. One way candidates can circumvent this possibility is to reserve the most damaging attacks for outside PACs and stakeholders to sponsor.

We least like attack ads that relate to topics that are directly relevant to the campaign – especially voting results and positions on topics. These ads are unlikely to boomerang and are likely to have some impact. Other important elements in the success of an attack are new information, entertainment, and plausibility.

So if we don’t like negative ads, and perhaps even suspect that they contribute to political malaise, why are they increasingly dominating candidates’ strategies?

The answer is simple: they work. And they work very well. Gingrich’s drop in polls in Iowa last month was no accident – it was choreographed by negative advertising.

Gingrich’s drop in polls in Iowa last month was no accident – it was choreographed by negative advertising.

Ruthann Lariscy

Our brain processes information consciously and unconsciously. When we pay attention to a message, we are in active message processing. If we are distracted or not careful, we can still passively receive information. There is evidence that negative news is more passively registered than positive. They “stick” for several reasons.

First, one of the most important factors in their success can be negativity bias. Negative information is more memorable than positive information – just think about how clearly you recall an offense.

Second, negative ads are more complex than positive ones. Positive news, for example about the sponsorship candidate’s voting record, is simple and straightforward. Every negative ad has at least one implicit comparison. If Mitt Romney is “not a true conservative,” then the candidate sponsoring the ad is implicitly saying that he or she is a true conservative. This complexity can mean that we process the information more slowly and more carefully.

I often use an analogy of running water from my garden hose. When I stand on top of a smooth concrete driveway and turn on the water, it flows down quickly, directly, and pretty seamlessly. This is how positive news goes through the brain. If I take the same hose and stand on top of a grassy hill and turn it on, the water flows slower than on the concrete hill, it picks up some loose dirt and inevitably some of it gets “stuck” in the grass. the way.

Negative information also spreads more slowly due to its increased complexity. It benefits from the distortion of negativity, and inevitably some of this negative information gets “stuck” in our heads even if we don’t like the ad or disagree with its content.

There is another benefit that negative news has that positive news, for the most part, doesn’t have. In psychology, the principle is called the sleeper effect.

Over time, a message will likely become detached from its sponsor. There is some evidence to suggest that negative ads benefit from this effect: Once you hear and see an attack, you could dismiss it as “politics only”. Then, usually a few weeks later, when you make your choice, something in your head remembers the negative information. You have probably forgotten when or where or from whom you heard it – but the negative content “hangs”.

I wish I could say the mudslingers in politics will come to an end – that negative political advertising will go away as we are largely disgusted with its use. But I can not. Although there have always been negative political messages, they are increasing in volume and reaching different types of campaigns. In the past, attacks were mainly reserved for campaigns for national offices, but today they are also evident in local and national campaigns.

Unfortunately, negative political ads work. And if you don’t live in a cave, you probably aren’t immune to its effects.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this comment are solely those of Ruthann Lariscy.


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