Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Negative Political Ads: Working For, and Against, a Candidate

It’s that time of year – election time – when things can get ugly. The negative political ads on television and the negative political phone calls are flooding out in full force. It seems everyone complains about them, but the big question is, do they work? The answer is yes, but not always in the manner in which the advertiser wants.

In an informal survey of friends, family, and casual conversation with people I encounter in any given day, I find that many people do listen to negative ads and at least make an attempt to process whether the claims are true or false. If the person who hears the ad doesn’t like the candidate at which the negative ad is pointed, it can cement their opinion and lock in their vote for the candidate running the ad. The gain for the candidate running the ad is zero because the person was going to vote for them anyway. If the person was going to vote for the other candidate – the one at which the ad is pointed - the voter often becomes defensive of their candidate and it can lock in their vote for their candidate, a gain of zero for the candidate running the ad.

But, the person who is on the fence can go either way, and a lot of it depends on the tone or the subject of the ad. If the ad brings out any claim of impropriety in the person’s personal or business dealings (for example, claims the candidate is a tax cheat, or claims that the person has lawsuits filed against him/her), those ads often swing voters to the candidate who is running the negative ad. Pointing at an incumbent’s past record is less effective, though, because if a person had voted for that person in the past, they will likely view this as an attack on their own past choices. No one likes to think they made a bad decision, even the voter.

When both parties run negative ads, it can become sheer comedy. Frequently I see TV ads for opposing candidates run back to back, pointing at each other with negative accusations. In those cases, people only get more confused and likely don’t want to vote for either candidate, canceling out the effect of the ad.

The web site has the Truth- O-Meter which attempts to sort through some of the accusations and rates them from true, through false, to “pants on fire”, the latter highlighting the biggest lies. It’s an invaluable tool when trying to determine if the ad has merit.

The bottom line – negative ads really don’t buy a candidate many votes. Many times it serves only to entrench voters in their choices, and risks alienating voters from the whole voting process. If a candidate has to rely on slinging mud to win voters, I believe this means they don’t have much substance of their own. While I know these ads will never go away, I can only wish that more candidates would choose not to take that route. A candidate should be selling me what he or she CAN do, not what their opponent CAN’T do, or what their opponent has done. It would be nice if the “truth-o-meter” could be superimposed on the ad while it runs, but I know that will never happen. Voters must take the time to educate themselves on the issue, and the PolitiFact Truth- O-Meter is a wonderful tool (available only for a select group of states). I encourage all to use it – get the facts before acting on negative spin!

Example: Ad Attacking Lee Fisher is “Half True”

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