by Susan Bryant
As political campaigns pick up speed this election year, voters can expect to see candidates intensify their attempts to persuade public opinion in their favor. Included
in their political arsenal are the “attack ads” that
many people find the worst part of our election process. Some attack ads become so famous they are
remembered for generations. The Washington Post actually compiled a playlist of videos of the worst negative campaign ads of all time. In fact, a recent Gallup poll indicated that 70% of Americans say they can’t wait for the 2012 presidential election to be over. If negative ads are viewed with such derision by the public, why do candidates continue to use this strategy?
Despite our gut feeling about negative ads, there are several reasons why they are effective according to Ruthann Weaver Lariscy, a professor of advertising and public relations in the Grady College at the University of Georgia.
- Negative information is more memorable than positive information.
- Negative ads are more complex than positive ones, requiring us to process them more slowly and with somewhat more attentiveness.
- Negative messages can elicit a “sleeper effect,” whereby a message becomes dissociated over time from its source. Although we may not remember where we heard something negative, the information is still retained and ultimately can affect our vote.
Crossing the line
There are limits to how much the public will indulge political mudslinging, however. On the few occasions when attack ads backfire, they have the effect of making the candidate look bad instead of his or her opponent. If voters feel an ad is particularly mean-spirited or unnecessarily personal, the candidate risks being accused of “going too far” and losing support. Likewise, ads that are over the top in either their claims or the images they use against an opponent can make a candidate look silly or desperate. Sealing their endorsement of these tactics, candidates are required to end their ad by saying “I approve this message,” indicating that their ad has come from their election organization rather than any other source.
Some candidates try to avoid the backlash against negative ads by asking potential donors to donate to political action committees (PACs). The
PACs can then run attack ads without seeming to be endorsed by a candidate.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court made it even easier for corporations and labor unions to sponsor attack ads in the case of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. In its January 10, 2010 Citizens United opinion, a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court overruled two important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations. The Court ruled that the government cannot ban political spending on behalf of candidates in elections. So we can expect even more money to be spent to pay for more negative campaign ads during this election cycle than before. An explanation of the controversial decision can be found in this Wikipedia article.
Will more campaign money mean more negative campaign ads? If the past is any indication of the future, we can expect more negative ads than we’ve seen before.
Are negative campaign ads a necessary evil?
Is there anything positive about a negative campaign ad? And is it possible to simply make them illegal? Lawyers once debated this issue, but in recent years it has become clear that negative campaign ads can’t simply be banned. Almost all attack ads are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Some feel that this strategy allows unsavory, but necessary, issues to be brought to light. Attacking candidates on heated issues prompts them to explain their position. When candidates’ pitfalls are on display, the public benefits by having a more realistic perspective of that individual. In his book, Campaign Advertising and American Democracy, political scientist Kenneth Goldstein says that positive ads often play on voters’ emotions, while negative ads are designed to teach. Also, negative ads are more likely to be factually accurate and be on policy issues than positive ads.
Sifting through the hype
Negative campaigns are nothing new in American history. During their campaigns, Thomas Jefferson’s family lineage was maligned and Abraham Lincoln’s appearance and accent were harshly criticized. Since it appears that negative ads will remain a part of our political landscape indefinitely, the responsibility falls on voters to learn what claims are accurate.
These web sites can help voters sort fact from fiction:
FactCheck.org This nonpartisan, nonprofit consumer advocate site monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players.
Politifact.com A project of the Tampa Bay Times and its partners, this site researches the accuracy of statements made by members of Congress, state legislators, the President and others.
The Fact Checker Written by Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler, this site checks the truth behind political rhetoric.
OpenSecrets.org A nonpartisan, independent, nonprofit research group run by The Center for Responsive Politics, this site tracks money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.