The Psychology of Political Ads
How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds
WebMD News Archive
When Negative Is Positive continued...
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
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."
Degrees of Negativity
It's important to note that negative ads vary widely in content and
intensity, so they won't all have the same psychological impact. Angelini's
team found the startle reflex was stronger during very negative ads as compared
to moderate ones. And the study did not differentiate between types of negative
feelings, such as disgust, fear, and anger.