However, specific types of negative and positive advertising do have distinct consequences. Spots that stir up positive emotions such as hope, pride and enthusiasm 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. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” ads featured uplifting music and bright images of happy workers, American flags and weddings. They established a standard for feel-good advertising that candidates of both parties have copied ever since.
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. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, for example, dramatically raised the specter of a nuclear conflict at the Cold War’s height. More recent ads have used dark images and ominous voice-overs to stoke fear about crime, immigration, terrorism, health care and jobs.
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, such as a recent Mitt Romney spot (“Where Did All the Money Go?”) that tries to incite outrage at President Obama by saying that he misspent stimulus funds.
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 incumbent’s 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, while politicians have been flooding TV and radio with spots highlighting their policy positions, conventional news sources have devoted less and less coverage to substantive policy differences, instead focusing on political strategy and poll results.
Campaign ads are brief, one-sided and occasionally misleading. Nonetheless, they provide broad access to information that many voters would not otherwise get.
3. Less-informed voters are more easily swayed by ads.
But aren’t 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. In 2006, a Republican National Committee ad showed Osama bin Laden threatening Americans over the sounds of a ticking clock and a thumping heartbeat. Informed voters are more likely to respond emotionally and politically to this sort of ad, in part because they have the type of strong partisan convictions that are undermined by fear ads (or activated by feel-good ads).