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Negative Political Ads and Image Management

Posted At: August 24, 2009 11:06 AM
by Cara Cramer

Are negative political ads the key to victory? Most political candidates spend significant amounts of money on television advertising for their campaigns. The bigger the election is, the more money that is spent on advertising. But how effective are these ads? Many voters do not take the time to fully educate themselves on each candidate’s policies before making a decision. So, what catches the eye of the potential voter the most? In recent elections, the use of negative campaign ads against the opponent has been successful.

The up side of negative advertising

For example, during the 2004 election one of the most popular ads was funded by George W. Bush and featured John Kerry windsurfing different directions, alluding to his unclear stance on issues. Often referred to as the Windsurfing Ad, the ending line of “John Kerry: whichever way the wind blows,” stuck in people’s minds and became increasingly popular on the Internet. Although the ad only mentions Bush’s name one time, it effectively promotes Bush’s clear stance on important policies over Kerry’s changing views.

When did negative campaigning really start to make a difference in elections? Most political scientists point to an ad released in 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign. The controversial ad, often called Daisy Girl, features a young girl picking petals off a flower and ends with a nuclear explosion. Although the ad was aired only once, it was shown repeatedly on numerous news broadcasts. This simple and highly effective ad helped Johnson convince America that Barry Goldwater was a nuclear war threat and thus was a major factor in Johnson’s landslide defeat of Goldwater.

But negative ads aren’t all about bashing the other candidate. A significant amount of research and time goes into creating a successful negative ad. The creation of a negative ad campaign involves knowing the opponent’s stance on issues, their claims for change as well as any slip-ups or mishaps in their policy platforms. Voters can get tired of hearing countless accounts of a candidate’s own attributes. When done correctly, negative campaigns can dramatically impact an election.

The down side of negative advertising
Although negative ads are often successful, there are many who believe that they increase the corruption in politics. Often referred to as “mudslingers,” some candidates will go to just about any extreme to bring down an opponent, even if it means exposing personal choices of that person or their family. Per Watergate, the methods used to obtain information about an opponent can be extreme and, at times, illegal. Nowadays, candidates have multiple forms of technology to find out potentially damaging information about an opponent.

With so much attention going into presidential elections, voters often tire of political ads altogether. Most campaigns prepare their strategies and tactics years in advance. The 2008 presidential election captivated the media for months, and was not free of negative ads. John McCain famously mocked Barack Obama’s celebrity status with a Celebrity Ad comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Obama also ran an ad, titled the 90 Percent Ad that pointed to the fact that McCain voted with Bush 90 percent of the time and would be just like Bush if he won the presidency.

Negativing advertising and a candidate’s long-term image
The success of negative campaign ads is palpable; however, how do these ads help the candidate’s overall image? Besides winning an election, candidates should hope to build trust in their service to constituents. If a candidate only focuses on the negative aspects of his or her opponent, it can become unclear to voters who they are actually voting for. As far as conveying a trustworthy image, putting too much focus on negative campaigning can have an adverse effect.

In a 1985 study, political research analyst Gina M. Garamone suggests that negative campaigning can backfire for two reasons.

“First, many viewers disapprove of advertising that attacks a candidate and such viewers may develop negative feelings toward the sponsor of the advertising. Second, viewers may perceive the negative advertising as an infringement upon their right to decide for themselves. Such a perception may result in reactance, a boomerang effect in which the individual reacts in a manner opposite to the persuader’s intention,” Garamone said.

Not all political scientists are in agreement about possible effects of negative advertising, however. Dr. Carol Cassel, professor of political science at The University of Alabama and election public opinion specialist, has noted trends in different studies.

“Some studies show that negative ads harm the opposition, but others show that negative ads may backfire and bring attackers down, too. A few things do seem certain. Voters dislike personal attacks, as opposed to attacks about issues or performance,and candidates who are behind in campaigns are the ones most likely to gain from negative ads, given they have little to lose,” she suggests.

Despite a possible boomerang effect, campaigns spend massive amounts of money on negative ads, particularly as the election nears. There is no doubt that these ads are highly effective and informative to potential voters who are not educated on every issue. From a PR perspective, the amount of negative campaigning needs to be strictly tailored to each election specifically. Although winning the election is the ultimate goal, restricting negative campaigning can have better long-term benefits for the candidate.

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