Research shows there's a reason for negative political ads: As much as we hate them, they work.
What is the point of attack ads, you may wonder?
After all, 80 percent of Americans claim that negative campaigns bother them either “somewhat” or “very much” and some recent studies suggest that negative political ads aren't worth the money—that they simply preach to the choir.
So why do campaigns continue to go negative?
A new study by two Notre Dame business professors may have some answers.
During the final weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign, Marketing professors Joan Phillips and Joe Urbany gathered 145 undergraduate marketing students hailing from all over the United States , most expressing a strong preference for either George W. Bush or John Kerry. The professors divided them into groups and showed them negative or positive television ads for one of the two candidates.
“Notre Dame was perfectly positioned for this study,” said Phillips. “Where else could you get such a geographically diverse sample: newly-registered, young voters, college-educated, half from blue states, half from red?”
Phillips and Urbany found that overall the effect of the negative ads was stronger than the effect of the positive ads. Almost 14 percent of voters who saw an ad criticizing their favored candidate were likely to strengthen their support for their candidate—a phenomenon Phillips calls “digging in their heels.” But most surprisingly, after viewing an ad attacking their favored candidate, another 14 percent of these young voters actually changed their minds, acknowledging their candidate's failings and reducing their support.
“These ads are having an effect,” said Phillips. “We know people dislike negative ads, but they do spend more time thinking about them, and they do have an impact.”