Behind the rise in negative campaign ads
October 11, 2012
This year’s crop of political advertising has appeared especially negative, with even Big Bird taking sides. This year is on pace to be the most negative presidential campaign since at least 2000, according to a study from the Wesleyan Media Project. During a three-week period from Sept. 9 to 30, just 7.8 percent of all presidential ads on television were positive, i.e. mentioning only the candidate the ad supports. During the same period in 2004, 19 percent of ads were positive, compared with 30 percent of ads in 2000 and 2008. Sixty-three percent of ads during that same span this year have been negative, mentioning only the opposing candidate, compared to 22.7 percent in 2000, 30.5 percent in 2004, and 56.2 percent in 2008. Going back to June 1, over the past four months, a mere 13.6 percent of all ads have been positive, compared with 54.4 percent in 2000, 35.3 percent in 2004 and 31.7 percent four years ago. One major reason for the shift in tone is that so many more ads are paid for by super political action committees this year, rather than the candidates themselves, and the PACs are free to say what they please. knowing their attacks can't be tied directly to the candidate. Travis N. Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project and Thomas S. Foley distinguished professor of government and public policy at Washington State University, talks to Media Life about why incumbents inspire more negative advertising, whether this trend will continue in the future, and whether negative ads actually work.
Why have we seen the shift in tone this election to more negative ads?
Part of it is that so much more advertising this year is sponsored by outside groups, which typically run attack ads. Part of it is that we have an incumbent president this year, which gives a challenger more things to attack. Part of it is that this race has been a very static one, and so the campaigns have being doing anything they can to try to move the needle.
Are you seeing the negative ads more from the candidates themselves or from their PACS and national committees? Why?
We're seeing more negative ads from the outside groups and party committees. One reason for this is that the candidates can somewhat absolve themselves from the responsibility of having aired a negative ad.
Do voters respond well to negative ads? Why or why not?
Most people profess to not liking negative ads, but we also know that negativity can pique someone’s attention, which may lead to learning.
Negative ads can also make people so mad that they want to get out and vote against the candidate featured in the ad—or against the scoundrel who sponsored the ad. Though there may be some people who decide to drop out as a result of being exposed to very harsh negative advertising.
Do negative campaign ads tie in with any overarching themes in the political narrative? I.e., are we more likely to see them in years when there's a recession or when there's deeper political divide?
Our data show that, over the past decade, campaigns have been becoming more negative, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for that.
Certainly, when there is a sitting president, we see more attacks from the challenger as the challenger has something to attack concretely. We also know that negativity is more common in close, competitive elections as it’s a way for a trailing candidate to try to shake up the race.
Which candidate is running more attack ads and why?
Both candidates—and there interest-group allies—are overwhelmingly negative this year. Whether Obama or Romney is more negative depends on the time period you’re looking at.
Traditionally do Republicans or Democrats tend to air more negative ads? Why?
It really depends on the year and on which party is the incumbent party.
If you have a campaign where the majority of the ads are negative, will voters start tuning them out?
Again, negativity can cause us to pay attention. Negative ads are more likely to be interesting than the typical positive biographical spot. But after a heavy dose of such ads—indeed, after a heavy dose of any ad—people just aren’t going to learn anything new from the ad.
Do you think that the change in tone toward more negative advertising will continue into the next presidential election? Or is that too hard to predict?
It’s very hard to predict, but I would not expect future campaigns to take a dramatic turn toward the positive given the current state of campaign finance in the United States, which almost encourages outside groups, which lack accountability, to take a part in the air war.
Do negative campaign ads work? Are politicians more likely to be elected when they use them?
Some negative campaign ads work, and some backfire. There is some risk to using negative advertising, especially if voters find it over the top. But an effective negative ad can also shake up the race—and draw substantial media attention—in a way that the typical positive ad cannot.
Tags: ads, advertising, campaign, election, negative ads, negative campaign ads, PACS, political, political ads, political advertising, political spending, presidential campaign, presidential election, research, studies, Wesleyan Media Project
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