The Terrible Power of Negative Advertising

Continuing the series, here’s another zombie idea: negative advertising “works.”  Either by hurting the candidate who is attacked or by turning off voters from the campaign altogether.  The sheer volume of negative ads certainly keeps this zombie living.

As does the terrific string of cliches attached to so much writing about negative ads.  Consider this piece.  We have effluvia: “tsunami of slime,” “toxic.”  Boxing: “win the fight with a knockout punch.”  Gore: “expensive and brutal evisceration,” “bloody victory.” And, of course, war, war, war: “ammo,” “counter-offensive,” “sharpening their arrows,” etc.  (I am not even one-fifth of the way through the piece.)

As does many examples of campaign reporting that discuss tactics—like negative ads or the micro-targeting of ads—with only vague statements about their effects.  Often from people whose very profession involves convincing candidates to pay them to make ads!

And so you get this from a forthcoming New America Foundation event:

Mudslinging isn’t pretty. But research — and conventional wisdom — says negative political ad campaigns work. Indeed, the tone early on in the 2012 contest suggests that accentuating the positive will not be the hallmark of this election cycle. Should that be of concern to us all? Are negative ads corrosive to our political discourse, or are they, in fact, a vital means of informing the electorate? Join us to consider how political messaging has evolved to its current state, as well as its impact on our broader culture. (And yes, we’ll be airing many past and current commercials.)

No, that’s not what “research” says.  I wrote two pieces on what the research about candidate advertising says—here and here—and I’ll quote from their discussion of negative advertising.

It is virtually a truism that negative advertisements make the candidate being attacked look bad, and the candidate doing the attacking look good. In 2008, Mark Penn hewed close to this conventional wisdom, asserting that despite research showing that voters dislike negativity, “clever” negative ads work. He wrote, “When reality and research differ, it is the research that is wrong.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t really know the reality. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of research into negative advertising found no conclusive evidence that they work:

“All told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaign.”

Take the “Daisy ad.” Perhaps the most infamous negative presidential ad of all time didn’t appear to move either Lyndon B. Johnson’s or Barry Goldwater’s poll numbers. And don’t be fooled by accounts suggesting that a negative ad had some subtle effect on a race — “changed the narrative” or another similarly squishy phrase. Votes, not narratives, are what wins elections.

There has been further research since that meta-analysis was published—see, for example, here or here—that finds some effect of negative ads on either turnout or voter choice under particular conditions.  But I’m sure there is other further research floating around that hasn’t found such an effect (to say nothing of what is languishing in file drawers).  Which is to say: we haven’t remotely arrived at a place where “research” suggests that negative ads “work.”  I’m not asking that reporters or commentators or foundations say that it “never works.”  I don’t think the literature suggests that either.  I’m just asking for some engagement with this research.  I think good reporting demands it.

Die, zombie, die!

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.