Nationwide’s dead-kid advertisement during Super Bowl XLIX got me to thinking about the effectiveness and consequences of negative advertisements. Some people simply blew off this ad with reactions like, “In their next ad Nationwide is going to shoot the Budweiser dog.” Others, however, found it a painful reminder of the caution called for when children are around, as noted in reports of many post-game conversations. Frankly, I thought it an effective reminder. Nonetheless, Nationwide is taking heat for going negative.
While no one has (yet) published a poll on the public reaction to Nationwide’s advertisement, I doubt the reaction will be close to that of negative political advertising. Public opinion polling shows that the public overwhelming dislikes negative political ads, which, depending on the level of viciousness for a given campaign season, can range from 75 to near 90 percent disapproval of negative advertisements and tactics.
During the 2014 mid-term election cycle, according to the National Journal (reporting the results of a study by Wesleyan University), new records were set for the level of negative campaigning. Both Republicans and Democrats engaged in these activities, but what is difficult to understand is why. Surely, the well-paid political warriors running these campaigns know that political science has clearly established that negative political advertising does not work. But on the slim chance you are a political consultant or candidate, and in case you missed it (ICYMI), let me share the information.
Negative Political Campaigning
It all started in 1964 with President Lyndon Johnson’s infamous little girl with the daisy ad. His opponent, the GOP standard bearer, Senator Barry Goldwater was never mentioned in this ad by name, which suggested he would blow up the world with nuclear bombs.
But the LBJ campaign (with a cooperative press corps) had spent weeks mischaracterizing Goldwater’s position on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. For example, Goldwater, a brigadier general in the Air Force, and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, knew what he was talking about when asked about interdicting supply lines from China to North Vietnamese troops fighting in South Vietnam. Goldwater said the problem was the trails were hidden by the jungle forest foliage. He added, based on information he had been given at a recent meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “I don’t think we would ever use any of them,” but noted that these forest could be defoliated “by low-yield atomic weapons.” This comment was soon twisted to claim that Goldwater wanting to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, which he did not.
LBJ’s campaign, however, was running a series of nuclear bombing ads. The little girl picking a daisy was soon followed by another long forgotten ad with little girl licking an ice cream cone, as a motherly voice explained that radioactive fallout had killed many children, so a treaty had been signed to protect them. Then a man’s voice adds that Barry Goldwater voted against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was a total distortion of his position, which simply called for treaty guarantees and other safeguards.
Twenty-four years later, when writing his memoir, Senator Goldwater noted: “Those bomb commercials were the start of dirty political ads on television. It was the beginning of what I call ‘electronic dirt.’” Indeed, many political scientists now describe LBJ as the father of the modern negative campaign and the little girl with the daisy as the mother of negative advertisements. These ads are almost always a total distortion of an opponent’s position(s).
There is, however, a truly fundamental problem with these publicly distasteful ads because, in fact, they do not work, and almost always cause problems for the attacker as well.
But Negative Ads Don’t Work
Surely every campaign advertising consultant knows that by 1999, four highly accredited political scientists—Richard Lau of Rutgers University, Lee Sigelman of George Washington University, Caroline Heldman of Rutgers, and Paul Babbitt of Rutgers—undertook a review (limited availability online without subscription) of all then-existing reliable studies of the conventional wisdom among political consultants and candidates during the 1980s and 1990s that election campaigns had become increasingly mean-spirited and the pervasive negative campaigns were exacting a heavy toll on American democracy by undermining positive feelings about elections and discouraging voter participation. In addition, they examined the key issue of whether negative campaigning actually worked. Their findings revealed the conventional wisdom was wrong and negative ads did not work, although they were not causing any particular damage to voting behavior.
The fact that political consultants and candidates had almost totally disregarded these scientific findings troubled Dr. Lau, who in 2007 assembled another team to join him—Lee Sigelman of George Washington University and Ivy Brown Rovner of Rutgers—to re-examine the issue. Maybe they had gotten it wrong in the earlier review and those out fighting election battles better understood. While the 1999 study had been based on “52 studies containing 123 pertinent findings” as of late 1998, the reassembled team found “111 studies containing 294 pertinent findings by mid-2006.” But when the updated study was completed, once again they found they had been correct and conventional wisdom of political consultants was incorrect. In short, there was no evidence to support the practice of political consultants and candidates of going negative.
This 2007 study minced no words by “stat[ing] the matter bluntly: There is no consistent evidence in the research literature that negative political campaigning ‘works’ in achieving electoral results that attackers desire.” (Emphasis in original report.) While acknowledging that attacks “probably do undermine evaluations of the candidates they target,” they found this consistently backfires on the attacker by bringing down his or her evaluation with voters as well, so “the net effect on vote choice is nil.” They hastened to add: “Nor have we uncovered evidence that negative campaigning tends to demobilize the electorate.”
Bottom line: There is absolutely no justification for negative campaigning, and fortunately there is no negative effect when it does occur as far as voting is concerned. This is not to say that campaign consultants and candidates have not made political campaigns a remarkably unpleasant necessity of democracy, and if past is prologue, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Frankly, I suspect I am not alone in going negative with W. C. Fields, who said, “Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.”
For further information on this subject see also: David Mark, Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning (New York: Roman & Littlefield, 2006) and John G. Geer, In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads In Presidential Campaigns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).