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Why attack ads work

If you’re sick of all those negative political ads that run on television before Election Day, well, you’re out of luck. Those ads—which many people say they hate—run for a reason: They work.

So says Joan Phillips, a Quinlan professor of marketing who has researched how voters react to negative political ads. But if so many people say they can’t stand the ads, why are they so effective?

It’s the same reason why people are more likely to watch the weather when a hurricane is coming than when it’s sunny and 70 degrees outside, Phillips says.

“We pay more attention to negative information,” she says. “It’s more salient, it scares us, and we’re more likely to remember it.”

To see why negative ads work, Phillips and two colleagues developed a field study in 2004 using real TV advertisements from the George W. Bush and John Kerry presidential election. The researchers asked college students to rate their level of support for the candidates on a seven-point scale, from “definitely Bush” to “definitely Kerry” (with five points in between).

They then showed the students one of four political ads and asked them to re-rate their levels of support. Roughly 14 percent of the students said the attack on their candidate made them support him even more, the researchers found. But an equal percentage of students said the advertisement weakened their support and caused them to move closer to the opponent—the one who ran the negative ad.

Although no one jumped from “definitely Bush” to “definitely Kerry,” some students who were leaning toward one candidate did switch to the other side. And in a tightly contested race, like this year’s presidential election, getting even a few people to change their vote can make all the difference in the world.

“That’s a huge, huge gain for a candidate,” Phillips says.

Negative ads tend to work best when people are passionate about the campaign, such as a presidential election where the stakes are high, Phillips says. The ads, however, become less effective as you move down the political ladder and into smaller races.

“The voter may just discount it,” she says. “They’ll think: ‘I don’t know who to believe, I don’t care, it doesn’t really matter to me.’ ”

So what’s the bottom line?

“We’re not saying positive ads aren’t good,” Phillips says. “It’s just that negative ads are effective.”

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