Political campaigns often spend more on ads than on anything else. But do the ads work? Are they as nefarious as their reputation suggests? Two decades of research has exposed several myths about campaign advertising.
1. Negative ads are more effective than positive ones.
Labeling ads as simply positive or negative obscures considerable diversity within each category. A review of more than 100 scientific studies found no conclusive difference between negative and positive ads, broadly defined, in their ability to win votes or affect turnout.
However, specific types of negative and positive advertising do have distinct consequences. Spots that stir up positive emotions stimulate voters interest and participation in an election. They also polarize the electorate, by activating the partisanship of supporters and opponents who see the ads.
Ads that trigger fear are better at persuading voters because they loosen the grip of partisanship. They scare voters into paying attention to new information about the candidates and issues, making them more likely to change their minds.
Anger, by contrast, does little to change minds; instead, it mobilizes voters to fight for their convictions. Campaign ads arouse anger by suggesting that people have been unfairly hurt and then casting blame.
Political ads are too multifaceted to be labeled simply as negative or positive – and to conclude that one type is superior to the other.
2. Campaign ads are uninformative.
At a minimum, ads boost candidates name recognition, which helps offset an incumbents inherent advantage. But they also teach voters a great deal about where candidates stand.
Because they reach people who might not seek out news or information about the candidates, ads can narrow the gap between uninformed voters and political junkies. Over the past 40 years, conventional news sources have devoted less and less coverage to substantive policy difference.
Campaign ads are brief, one-sided and occasionally misleading. Nonetheless, they provide broad access to information many voters would not otherwise get.
3. Less-informed voters are more easily swayed by ads.
But arent those uninformed voters also easy prey for the emotionally manipulative tactics that media consultants deploy? Not so much.
We respond emotionally to things we care about. Political advertising arouses the strongest reactions in those who care and know the most about politics.
An ads timing matters as much as its content. Spots criticizing an opponent tend to work differently early and late in campaigns. Before people have settled on a candidate, attack ads help them make up their minds. But these same ads depress turnout when seen later by voters who have already chosen which candidate to support.
4. A candidate should respond to an attack ad with a counterattack on the same issue.
In some cases, such a response may make sense; in others, it is precisely the wrong thing.
If an accusation cuts to the core of a candidates strength, then a strong rebuttal, preferably with evidence, might be warranted.
Often, however, these counterattacks pull candidates off their message. Research suggests that its better to spend ad dollars highlighting issues that play to a candidates strengths rather than engaging an opponent on his issues.
Mitt Romney, for example, should probably not devote many ads to the fight against terrorism, an issue on which President Obama fares relatively well in polling, or to the environment, a subject where Democrats have a reputational advantage.
5. News organizations neutralize misleading ads by fact-checking them.
Such news stories may be well-intentioned, but there is no clear evidence that they reliably undercut misleading claims or manipulative tactics. Part of this may be because of volume; ads are repeated and reach many people who dont watch, listen to or read the news.
Voter psychology also plays a role. While some news stories may weaken an ads effectiveness, many media reports end up extending the reach of the misleading statements they are trying to debunk.
In 1992, CNN ran ad watch segments pointing out that Bill Clintons attacks on President George H.W. Bushs handling of the economy were misleading and that Bushs attacks on Clinton for raising taxes as governor were hypocritical. In both cases, viewers came away with more favorable views of the candidate whose ad was being criticized. This tendency is exacerbated by the audiences strong partisan convictions. Research shows that partisans tend to persist in believing inaccurate information, even after it is corrected, when that information makes their party look better or the other party look worse.