Negative campaigning: the facts behind the attacks

September 12, 2012

Faculty Expertise, Talent

Dog teeth

As the November presidential election approaches, we’re bracing ourselves for the usual onslaught of political attack ads. And in the past few years, we’ve become all too familiar with villainous characters like Mayhem — the personification of car crashes and pitfalls that can befall homeowners.

It seems we’re continually bombarded with attack and fear-based ads. Has this become the only way to sell a candidate or a product?

Rohini Ahluwalia, the Curtis L. Carlson Trust Professor of Marketing at the Carlson School of Management, has done extensive research on the subject. She specializes in consumer psychology and the influence of persuasive information related to brands, political candidates and issues. Here, she shares some of her findings.

When did we start to see negative information in political campaigning?

In the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater race and the famous “Daisy” ad. The ad showed a little girl with a daisy and she was taking off the petals. Then it showed a nuclear blast. It was a negative ad against Goldwater, creating fear about what the future would be if he was president. It capitalized on nuclear fear and it got everybody’s attention. The election ended up being a landslide win for Johnson. In political advertising, it was a landmark event.

You mentioned in one of your articles that negative political campaigns started gaining momentum in the 1980s.  

It really took off in the 1988 Bush-Dukakis race with the Willie Horton ads. The ads talked about a policy for criminals to get passes and get out of prison. There was a rape case associated with a white woman who was raped by a black man, Horton. It was very highly publicized and it was associated with the issue of security when you let the prisoners get out on passes.

George H.W. Bush was lagging in the polls and those ads capitalized on the emotion that was very prominent at the time. The election really changed course and those ads were credited in the media and in academic and political circles for the come-from-behind victory for Bush. It became a pivotal point in terms of increasing negativity in political advertising campaigns.

Is using negative information the most effective way to campaign for office?

We have a misconception that if you use negative campaigning you’re going to win. But if you look at any of the data, it doesn’t really happen that way:

  • In the 1988 race, Bush’s campaign was more negative; he was the winner.
  • In 1992, Bush’s campaign was more negative, but Clinton won.
  • In the 1996 Clinton-Dole race, Dole’s campaign was much more negative; Clinton insisted on doing a positive campaign and he won.
  • In 2000, we had George W. Bush and Al Gore. The negative campaigning came more from the Bush camp than the Gore camp, and it won in that case.
  • In 2004, it worked again for Bush versus John Kerry.
  • If you look at the numbers for the 2008 campaign, there was significantly more negative advertising by John McCain, and Barack Obama won.

So out of six elections, there were three of them where the negative campaigner won, and three where they didn’t.

When you use negative tactics, what’s really happening?

When you have a negative campaign, the people who are most influenced by it are your own base. They get more excited, they get upset, and they’re more likely to show up at the polls. When both parties do a lot of negative campaigning, they are more likely to vote because they want to vote against the other candidate.

But what’s happening to the swing voters in between? They get disgusted, they get upset, and they get disenchanted. They don’t like the negativity and it depresses their turnout.

What motivates the undecideds?

My research shows that what seems to have a greater influence is the importance of the information; not whether it’s positive or negative, but whether it’s really critical. When we look at the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, nuclear fear was one of the salient issues at that time. And the Willie Horton ads worked because that issue had really caught the public’s attention.

So if it’s a very important, salient issue and the negative information you provide is strongly supportive of that, then it’s going to get play.

Give us an example of consumer brand marketing that’s based in negative information.

You’ve probably seen those cute, “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” commercials. If you drill down, it’s a negative campaign. But it’s so well put together it’s been very successful. That’s partly because the Mac ads distracted us from thinking it was a negative campaign. They were very funny and because there’s humor involved, we didn’t really think a lot about the tactics that were being used.

Is there a downside to running a negative ad campaign?

In general, when you have a negative campaign, people who support your product will love it because it’s like preaching to the choir. But you’re trying to win over the people who are undecided and the people who oppose you. And those people are most likely to resist negative advertising because they think it’s a dirty tactic; they think it’s unfair.

Political campaigns go so fast and a lot of the negativity occurs close to the election date, so voters don’t really have the time to think them through. But the negative doesn’t always win because it really depends on the issues.

A product campaign is different because the time period over which consumers have time to absorb the ads is much longer. A campaign might run six months or a year, so there’s more time for them to think about what kind of tactic they’re using.

How does a company or candidate compete against negative advertising? 

When you have somebody running negative ads against you and you respond, people are getting double exposure to that issue. So it can seem like you actually do have a problem. On the other hand, if you don’t address the issue, then you’re guilty as charged.

The way to look at it is to consider how serious the negative information is. If it’s about something that’s extremely critical, then it makes sense to go back and address it. But if it isn’t, then it may make sense to take the high road.

A good way to disarm a negative competitor is to motivate people to think about the tactics being used in their campaign and how fair they are.

Post by Ivy Gracie, a freelance writer working in the Twin Cities and Chicago areas

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