Thursday, February 16, 2012

Political Ads- do they work?

Political ads are an unwelcome and inevitable part of the political cycle. If you live in a key state, you get inundated with them. Campaigns spend millions upon millions on these unwelcome ads, which begs the question- do they work??
In a time where "the public" feels that campaigning is getting more and more negative, many people feel that political ads are at the root of the unethical campaigning. So why would a candidate choose to air ads that leave viewers with a bad taste? No one has ever turned on the TV and said, "Oh good! Another negative campaign ad! Woohoo!"
The subject has not been researched in depth, but what little research there has been suggests that candidates who run negative ads are more likely to win. But then there is also research that indicates  running negative ads makes a candidate more likely to lose.
What is really interesting is that some studies have show that negative advertising results in lower voter turnout.   ("The Effectiveness of Negative Political Advertisements: A Meta-analytic Review" by Lau, Sigelman, Heldman, & Babbitt in the American Political Science Review.)

According to a bipartisan survey commission by the Project on Campaign Conduct, voters do not like political ads, and do not trust candidates and/or campaigns.

Among the findings-
More than eight in ten voters say attack-oriented campaigning is unethical, undermines democracy,  lowers voter turnout, and produces less ethical elected officials.
Seventy-six percent of voters think negative campaigning produces less-ethical and less trustworthy
More than 80 percent of voters think this type of campaigning makes people less likely to vote.

Highlights from the Survey

Of those surveyed:
  • 59% believe that all or most candidates deliberately twist the truth.
  • 39% believe that all or most candidates deliberately lie to voters.
  • 43% believe that most or all candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents. Another 45% believe that some candidates do.
  • 67% say they can trust the government in Washington only some of the time or never.
  • 87% are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today's political campaigns.
Interestingly, voters are also capable of distinguishing between what they feel are fair and unfair "attacks" in a political campaign. At least 57% of those surveyed believe negative information provided by one candidate about his/her opponent is relevant and useful when it relates to the following:
  • Talking one way and voting another
  • Not paying taxes
  • Accepting campaign contributions from special interests
  • Current drug or alcohol abuse
  • His or her voting record as an elected official
At the same time, at least 63% of those surveyed indicated the following kinds of information should be considered out of bounds:
  • Lack of military service
  • Past personal financial problems
  • Actions of a candidate's family members
  • Past drug or alcohol abuse

If voters feel that way, why do campaigns continue to run negative attack ads?
Because they work. They may not work on every voter, but they work on some voters. Case in point- Newt Gingrich's loss in Iowa. One minute he was on top, the next he wasn't- and it all corresponded to negative political ads.

Negative ads work because they confuse the viewer. A positive message isn't memorable. If Candidate Positive puts out an a happy, positive ad touting his/her shiny record. Candidate Opposite puts out a negative ad. The viewer may be turned off by the negative ad, but more than that it leaves a question mark in the viewer's head- who do you believe? If the viewer is already set on a candidate, and really likes Candidate Positive, the ad will only serve to reinforce that he/she doesn't like Candidate Opposite. The ad doesn't work on someone who has made up his/her mind. But it can confuse the undecided voter and keep them from picking Candidate Positive. 

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