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The Psychology of Political Ads

How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds

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.

These distinct emotions are likely to result in different behaviors. As we saw earlier, fear leads voters to pay more attention and seek both sides of the story. "Anger works very differently," Brader says, "and in ways much more like the positive emotions, in the sense of reinforcing what you were inclined to do in the beginning."

This suggests political campaigns can tailor negative ads to achieve specific goals. Want to make sure your supporters get out and vote? Ads that fuel anger may do the job. Want to sway uncommitted voters? Ads that tap into genuine fears may have the power to change minds.

With all the money and effort political campaigns put into advertising, do the ads have any lasting impact? Not really, according to Geer. "The current data suggests the ads have a shelf-life of three to four days," he says. Once the ads stop running, they are quickly forgotten.

Brader agrees that individual ads don't have a lasting impact, but says the effects can accumulate to shape the public's overall impression of a candidate. "If the ads were successful in painting a candidate as extreme, it could be polarizing," he tells WebMD. The ads could create lingering doubts that "carry over into the new president's term."

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