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Five myths about campaign ads

Video: “Senate,” “senator” and “representative” make only rare cameos in TV ads for incumbents seeking reelection. The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman reports.

Political campaigns often spend more on ads than on anything else, and ad spending has risen rapidly in recent years — a trend that has intensified since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. 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.

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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).

An ad’s 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 to do.

If an accusation cuts to the core of a candidate’s strength — say, the 2004 “swift boat” ad assault on John Kerry’s war service in Vietnam — then a strong rebuttal, preferably with evidence, might be warranted.

Often, however, these counterattacks pull candidates off their message. Research suggests that it’s better to spend ad dollars highlighting issues that play to a candidate’s strengths — such as those on which she has built a solid reputation or on which voters prefer her stance — rather than engaging an opponent on his issues.

Romney, for example, should probably not devote many ads to the fight against terrorism, an issue on which Obama fares relatively well in polling, or to the environment, a subject where Democrats have a reputational advantage.

Similarly, airing ads denying that you are a witch, as Christine O’Donnell did in her failed 2010 Senate bid, feeds a campaign theme that is unlikely to improve your odds on Election Day.

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 don’t watch, listen to or read the news.

Voter psychology also plays a role. While some news stories may weaken an ad’s effectiveness, many media reports end up extending the reach of the misleading statements they are trying to debunk: People hear the claim and remember it better than the journalist’s correction.

In 1992, CNN ran “ad watch” segments pointing out that Bill Clinton’s attacks on President George H.W. Bush’s handling of the economy were misleading and that Bush’s 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 audience’s 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 makes the other party look worse.

tbrader@umich.edu

Ted Brader, the author of “Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work,” is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

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