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Are Negative Political Ads Persuasive?

http://youtu.be/yzlJ213_g3U COLUMBUS, OH (Presidential Election Ground Zero)-- Early in my career I was working for the leader of the State Senate in California, my home state.  A young, Hispanic leader in LA was challenging an old guard Senator, also Hispanic.

A “hit piece” mailer blanketed the district claiming that the younger candidate was “living with a woman he calls his ‘wife.’ ”  Nowhere on the flyer did it mention that the reason he called the woman his “wife” was because she was his wife.

Ground Zero: Columbus, Ohio

Fast forward to today, where I live in Columbus, OH, Ground Zero in the 2012 presidential election, which will be held next Tuesday.  Ohio is always a pivotal state in the presidential elections and Columbus, in the center of the state, is always the most important media market to win. (Watch the video above to learn why.)

Over the years, I haven’t minded getting the extra attention because presidential candidates spend so little time in California, other than raising money. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney visit here constantly, as do their family and friends. They get a lot of news media coverage.

And being in the communications business, I did actually get some guilty pleasure from the attack ads. It's like a professional duty.

In fact, I did this NPR Commentary in 2006 about how I loved attack ads.

Well, the thrill of attack ads is gone.  For me, the presidential campaign’s negative ads have finally, as they say, “Jumped the Shark.”

Spending $2 billion in marketing

The campaigns are spending more than ever to market the candidates. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the presidential candidates and their supporters will spend about $2 billion on the election.  The Washington Post says $128 million will be spent in Ohio, $26 million here in the Columbus media market.

Guess how many TV ads that translates into in Columbus?  35,000.  Yes, that’s THIRTY FIVE THOUSAND television ads. Ads blanket online activity as well. Using YouTube, social media or doing any online search will mean contending with a saturation of attack ads.

Our blog has readers in some 40 countries.  I don’t expect our readers in those countries to make sense of a situation of this craziness where tens of millions of dollars are spent to capture the attention of tens of thousands of independent voters.  But the stranger truth is that most people in the United States will never experience this intense election process either.

All this spending means that on any given 30 minutes of television this month, we might see 6-12 television ads for president and other campaigns and most of them are negative, attacking the other candidates.

7 Times as many negative ads

In fact, one study indicates that the candidates are spending seven times as much on negative as on positive advertising.

Our mailbox also gets fill with attacks, as you’ll see when I spread out all of my mail in the video above.

This raises the question: Are negative political advertisements effective? Are voters influenced by negative ads?

I’ve reviewed a lot of research and one can draw many different conclusions: negative ads are more likely to be remembered; negative ads work to a point, but too many ads turn off voters; negative ads produce a corrosive cynicism that forces a choice of two perceived evils.

Voters claim to be turned off by these ads, but seem to be influenced. The bottom line is that campaigns would not be spending hundred of millions of dollars to run ads that don’t win elections.

What’s your opinion?

What do you think? Are negative ads effective? Have you ever been persuaded by a negative ad to change your vote?

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Don’t vote. It only encourages them--Old Anarchist’s Proverb