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The Psychology of Political Ads

How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds

Feel-Good Ads vs. Fear Ads

"The feel-good ads are mobilizing," Brader tells WebMD. "They make people more interested in participating, more interested in the election. And they reinforce people's prior views, beliefs, and attitudes."

Feel-good ads can be biographical, or they may highlight a candidate's strengths on certain issues. 

"People regard fear ads as the worst kind of negative ad," Brader says. "That's a misconception." Fear is useful in political discourse, he says. It can help direct the public's attention to important issues. It prompts people to seek more information and rethink their course of action. It "unlocks the grip that habit holds over people's decisions."

In other words, it's the positive ads that make people act without thinking, while fear leads people to evaluate information more carefully. In Brader's study, the fear ads were the only ones that persuaded people to change their minds.

But there is a caveat. "My prediction would be that fear ads work better where there is a basis in the environment for the fear," Brader says. "If people turn around and see that everything is actually sunny and going well, the ad won't work."

When Negative Is Positive

Geer, the author of In Defense of Negativity, argues that negative ads in general have been unfairly maligned. "There's this belief that negative ads are misleading and don't inform people. Actually, they are much more informative than the positive ads."

Geer studied every presidential ad between 1960 and 2000 and found the negative ads contain far more specifics. They have to, Geer explains, because negative ads "demand evidence. People are willing to believe the positive messages without evidence."

Geer concludes that negative ads are a positive influence because they give voters more specifics to discuss. "It's important to have information from both sides," he tells WebMD. "This generates conversation." 

Still, Geer says some types of negative ads can backfire. "The public dislikes personal attacks and much prefers policy disputes," he tells WebMD. "The personal attack has a lot of risks. ... The public is pretty savvy in determining what's relevant and what's not."

Gut Reactions to Negative Ads

Whether negative ads ultimately help or hurt, the conventional wisdom is that they make people recoil. This idea is supported by a study published in the Journal of Advertising last year. Researchers found that watching extremely negative political ads is physiologically similar to seeing a snake or spider.

"We have these emotional responses when something negative comes our way," says James R. Angelini, PhD, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware. "It's a 'flight' type response."

One way to measure a flight response is to see how hard people shut their eyes when startled. "The more negative the stimuli, the harder people slam their eyes shut," Angelini tells WebMD. He and his colleagues used blasts of white noise to startle participants while they watched positive, moderate, and negative political ads. "When exposed to the negative ads, people did indeed slam their eyes shut harder," Angelini says. "It's the same response as if they encountered a wild animal."

Angelini says more research is needed to determine whether this flight response might make voters flee the political process altogether. "It's unclear who is being hurt by this," he says. "That's something campaigns need to think about."

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