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The Psychology of Political Ads

How Political Campaigns Use Advertising to Trigger Emotions and Change Minds
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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 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."

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.

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