The Politics of Negative Advertising
Or Why Negative Ads Bother Me Less Than Most
Most people hate “negative” political ads. I’m not a huge fan, and I think it would be a challenge for anyone to find someone who loves them. I remember the “Swift Boat” ads in the 2004 campaign and whenever I remember them all I can think of is dirty politics.
But I don’t think all attack ads are dirty politics.
Attacking a candidate’s personal life or family? Dirty politics (but I’ll be talking about this more in a future post). Attack their business record or positions? Fair game.
Do I think Mitt Romney’s past involving business deals and outsourcing is relevant to the campaign? Yes I do. Did I think Barack Obama’s quick rise to the Senate and relatively small amount of time in elected office was relevant in 2008? Yes I did. These are fair charges and it’s information that is relevant to the choice we have to make in the voting booth.
In today’s New York Magazine, Frank Rich argued that “the president, any president, should go negative early, often, and without apology if the goal is victory”. It’s hard to create a 30-second spot for the positive, especially when you consider that it is hard for even the experts to decode when the economy will return to when Americans demand…or if there is a way to get there faster than the track we are on now. The positive is complicated and it’s not easy to boil it down to 30 seconds.
Americans may hate negative ads, but they are here to stay for one simple reason: they work. They work incredibly well, in fact. Looking at the GOP’s Iowa caucus earlier this year, Newt Gingrich experienced a steep drop in the polls the corresponded directly with a negative ad campaign. Negative ads work best when they confirm something already believed about a candidate. Voters already thought Michael Dukakis was soft on crime: Enter the Willie Horton ad. People thought Kerry was stiff, cold and distant: Enter the swift boats.
But there is a reason negative ads work better than positive ones. Our brains process information both consciously and unconsciously, and the negative ads are more likely to register, even if we don’t think so. Negative information is more memorable than positive (think of how long you remember an insult compared to how long you remember a compliment) as well as negative ads being more complex. Positive ads are usually straightforward: “Smith for Congress voted to lower taxes!” While negative ads usually evoke some kind of comparison; if Smith for Congress isn’t a “real American”, there is the implied fact that the candidate behind the ad is. This somewhat more complex thinking causes the brain to process the ad slower than if it were processing the positive ad.
There is another benefit negative messages achieve that positive messages largely do not. In psychology the principle is called the sleeper effect.
Over time, a message is likely to become disassociated from its sponsor. There is some evidence that negative ads benefit from this effect: Immediately upon hearing and seeing an attack, you might dismiss it as being “just politics.” Then, typically several weeks later when you are making your voting decision, something in your mind recollects the negative information. You have likely forgotten when or where or from whom you heard it — but the negative content “stuck.”
So are attack ads annoying? Yup. Are some of them unfair? You bet. But are they relevant? Yes. A candidate is going to do what he can to win, and that most likely includes negative advertising. They are a necessary evil of this business, and an effective evil to boot. So watch everything on DVR and get an AdBlocker, because attack ads are here to stay.