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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Negative political advertisements: Not to be dismissed

Erika Franklin Fowler speaks on negative political advertisements

Erika Franklin Fowler speaks on negative ads/photo by Brett Blaske

An American family sits on a sofa listening to well-dressed politicians explain with dark apprehension how their opponent will be the downfall of society. The leaders argue that their own credentials are far superior, citing alleged facts regarding their opponent’s decisions. As political scientist Charles Franklin noted, they might also end with a scene showing them playing with a golden retriever.

Franklin, co-founder of and visiting law professor at Marquette University, currently works on modeling election campaigns and polling data. He was part of a panel discussing political advertising at the fourth annual ethics conference held Friday by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The panel assessed the impacts of negative political advertising. Professor Dhavan V. Shah, moderator of the panel and director of the Mass Communication Research Center, said negative advertisements contain information about politicians that constituents might not otherwise know.

Although negative advertising can present half-truths or leave out information, even pure slash-and-burn attack ads may present substantive challenges. Erika Franklin Fowler, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, said negative advertisements are usually intended to influence the politically uninformed, and their content deserves to be discussed.

“It would be a shame if we wanted a world without negative ads,” Fowler said.

Negative advertisements have diminishing returns after a certain point, said Lee Wilkins, professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and recipient of the Curator’s Teaching Professorship. Viewers who are overexposed are not as affected, and viewers who lean toward the news media for information tend to dismiss negative advertisements overall.

In contrast to negative advertisements, the panel also mentioned that positive commercials motivate people to research political issues. “Feel good” ads that contain little or no information may spark viewers’ curiosity, so they seek answers elsewhere.

The panel also mentioned that a commercial might be more effective if it lacks a source. If viewers cannot immediately categorize an ad with a particular party, the ad may penetrate more and not be immediately dismissed as bipartisan.

At the local level, mudslinging advertisements may influence viewers more, especially if they are seeing one-sided attacks that go unanswered, said Wilkins.

“The more local, the more likely it is to be the case,” said Wilkins. “Most of those ads win, and it’s the level of analysis that matters.”

Political science professors Robert Jackson from Florida State University, Jeffrey Mondak from the University of Illinois, and Robert Huckfeldt from the University of California, conducted a 2009 analysis that found no empirical support for popular beliefs that negative advertisements discourage voter turnout or foster negative attitudes and cynicism. Franklin argued that public attitudes often correspond with current political affiliations. Partisan viewers more often agree with advertisements supporting previously held beliefs.

“When Democrats see a Democratic add, they’re going to say ‘yeah you bet!’ And when a Republican sees a Republican add, they’re going to say ‘yeah!’ And when they see the other side, they say ‘bull!’”

Despite popular claims that the electorate is evenly polarized because of political advertisements, Franklin stressed that many political issues are widely disagreed upon. Cuts in education and deficit spending are two issues he cited with a wide margin of disagreement between parties.

“It’s easy to conclude we are a deeply polarized electorate and perfectly divided electorate,” said Franklin. Later he added, “There are some areas where Democrats have a strong advantage, and there are others where Republicans have the overall advantage. And so for all the evidence that some voters see what they want to see and reinforce their political beliefs, there are actually variations on where different parties are clear winners on different issues.”

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