Study: More Money, More Media Coverage Lead to More Negative Political Ads

And That's Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

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A study published in the May-June issue of Marketing Science has found that big budgets and media saturation are among two key contributing factors to negative campaign advertising. In "The Seeds of Negativity: Knowledge and Money," co-authors Mitchell Lovett, an assistant professor of marketing at the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester, and Ron Shachar, professor at the Arison School of Business, Israel, and a visiting professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, followed U.S. House of Representative races in 2000, 2002 and 2004 and found that "negativity indeed increases in both voters' knowledge and the candidate's budget."

Or, in the non-academic English used in the press release, "if voters know little about each candidate, the advertisements will generally focus on a candidate's positive attributes. But a candidate with deep pockets or media saturation is much more likely to turn to attack ads."

Early in the election, a candidate will introduce himself and let voters get to know him. In a non-competitive race, as in Eliot Spitzer's race for governor of New York in 2006, the candidate can continue to take this approach. But, as is more often the case, once the race becomes competitive and voters achieve a baseline knowledge of all candidates -- thanks to previous advertising or to media coverage -- something must be done to cut through the clutter. So the fur begins to fly.

This isn't exactly a new trend. One of the ugliest campaigns in American history was brought to us by the wealthy supporters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

Not only are negative attack ads nothing new, there's little evidence to suggest it harms democracy. Studies since the turn of this century have found that negative ads "increase voter involvement." Why? Perhaps because it incites human emotion and convinces voters that if people are getting this worked up, something important must be at stake. It can't be denied that there is some scientific basis for this. As one study found, "the average voter responds positively to negative ads and not at all to positive ads." And by positively, they don't mean the voters got the warm fuzzies; they mean the ad worked on the voter.

Or, in the words of Sachar, "adding more positive information does little to raise the opinions of voters who already know a lot about a candidate. The opposite is true for negative information: The more you add, the more significant it becomes in the minds of voters."

This last bit would seem like plain old common sense. Are you, as a voter, more inclined to believe that a politician is the upstanding guardian of good he claims herself to be or the back-stabbing, flip-flopping, conniving politician his opponent claims him to be?

What can non-political marketers take away from this? The study doesn't make any huge leaps, but it does point out that a long, competitive election cycle can be likened to a mature category. "It seems reasonable to assume that consumers' knowledge is higher in mature product categories. If knowledge plays a similar role in commercial competition, we should expect to find more negative advertising in such markets." Like soup, maybe?

The study didn't look at "truth" in political advertising and it should be noted that the study's authors define "negative advertising" relatively broadly as "cases in which the ad discusses the competitor." In the rest of the marketing world, that 's known as comparative advertising. Some may call foul on this, but the authors make a good point: Comparative advertising in the marketing world is "negative" in that it points out the flaws of the competitor -- and this is what negative political ads aim to do.

And comparative ads in wider marketing world not only work, but they stand out. "Arguably some of the most memorable recent ads and advertising campaigns were negative," write the authors, including the "Mac vs. PC" campaign of Apple and the knock-down, drag-out map wars between Verizon and AT&T.

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