Is Negative Campaign Advertising Bad for Democracy?

Overall, politics has seen an increase in negativity which can be attributed to both the candidates and the media. The candidates themselves attack each other in debates and advertisements and the media is more likely to cover negativity, therefore campaigns are incentivized to develop them.

The development of a primarily negative political sphere has increased negative advertisements exponentially; compare “only 10% of advertisements in the 1960 campaign were negative,” (Mattes & Redlawsk, 2014) and “in the 2012 campaign only 14.3% of aired ads were positive” (Fowler & Ridout, 2012). While many people have a severe disdain and a gut-wrenching reaction to negative political advertisements, during election season they are nearly impossible to escape. This begs the question do negative advertisements affect electoral outcomes and the political process positively or negatively? The short answer is, that the research is ambiguous. Some studies point to negative advertising having negative consequences on American politics, and other studies show that negative advertising is beneficial for the overall political process. As shown below, while there is a case to be made for both sides, overall negative advertisements are beneficial for the political process and democracy. The connection between the two is very conditional and delicate.

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In order to understand the effects of negative political advertisements on the democratic process, one must have a general understanding of quality political advertising, what exactly a negative advertisement is and the development of negative advertisements within politics. A quality political advertisement has four key qualities: 1) the advertisements are centralized on issues, not traits, 2) the advertisements are specific, 3) the claims are supported by documented information and finally 4) should regard the issues that are important to the government. A negative advertisement is “any account in which a candidate raises doubt about his or her opposition” which is in direct opposition to a positive advertisement that is “any information that a candidate provides about his or herself” (Votraw, 2018). However, Khan and Kenney (1999) make another distinction about negative advertising that is critical to answer the question. That distinction is what they call “legitimate negative information” which pertains to a candidate’s issues position and voting records versus information that voters will see as “irrelevant or inappropriate.”

In terms of the history of negative advertising, the first negative advertisement was aired in 1964 during the reelection campaign of Lyndon Johnson. The attack ad, widley known as Daisy or the Mushroom Cloud ad, is a one-minute long video that frames his opponent, Barry Goldwater, as an undisciplined, reckless warmonger, and will start nuclear warfare that will destroy lives and family. The reason this advertisement is so important for discussing negative advertisements today is because it introduced a new element to political advertising that is widely used today. Blatantly, it appeals to emotions and fear of the viewer. Aired two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and a few months after Dr. Strangelove, people were scared, mainly of nuclear war. This advertisement and the appeal to fear and emotion is regarded as one of the reasons that Johnson won his reelection by one of the largest margins in US history.

How does this information support the claim that negative advertisements are good for democracy? In many ways, it does. First it is rooted in Brader’s (2006) research. In his research he finds that negative ads can affect someone emotionally and these emotion lead to behavioral outcomes. The more emotion a negative ad can invoke (as in the Daisy ad), the more likely it is to create a behavioral outcome in a viewer.

Another reason negative advertisement is good for democracy is because it is the very idea of democracy at work, encapsulating the ability for everybody to freely and openly express themselves. As Geer writes, without negativity “no nation can credibly think of itself as democratic.” Geer continues on by talking about how in order for the best ideas to surface [in a democracy] citizens need to be able to criticize and debate the best course of actions, meaning that the result of negativity and criticism is progress.

Negative advertisements can also be good for democracy because negative claims tend to be substantiated by evidence. While you can create negative advertisements without a basis in facts, they are more likely to be perceived positively when the claims are substantiated by evidence. Jamieson (2000) supports this claim in his research when he says, “positive ads may be deceptive, while certain negative attacks can be informative and important.” Negative ads lead to greater accountability on all parties involved with the dissemination of better information as a result. As June Kronholz quotes from Scientist John Geer (2008) “of 14 largely negative ads that Mr. Bush and Al Gore ran against each other in 2004, 13 back up their claims with some proof… (but) of 19 positive ads from the same campaign, only one offered any evidence.” A better information environment leads to a more informed society and a more efficient, better democratic system.

The third reason negative advertisements are good for democracy is because they can be exciting and captivating. With some people finding politics boring, negative ads may spark an interest or emotional connection in the issues, which Goldstein & Freeman (2002) suggest may lead to more people participating and voting. Negative advertisements are also more memorable then positive ads (Geer & Geer, 2003). As Kahn and Kenny (1999) write in their article, “since the preponderance of information people receive in their daily lives is positive, negative information is more unique, more salient, and more memorable.” More memorable leads to a greater effect. A greater effect leads to a more politically active society.

Franz, Freedman, Goldstein and Ridout (2007) present research that furthers the idea that negative advertisements are good for democracy. Their research shows that people who are exposed to these kinds of ads are generally more knowledgeable about politics, which indicates greater involvement, interest and political participation. As Kenneth Goldstein (2007) writes in his book Campaign Advertising and American Democracy, “The 30-second kernel of a political ad isn’t going to feed people’s political knowledge, but if it builds on knowledge they already have or it encourages them to seek out information in other places, it can be effective.” The more people interested and connected with the content produced in the negative ads, the more people vote, and the more people voting means more people exercising their democratic rights and an overall better democracy then before.

While there are many upsides to negative advertising that can lead to positive outcomes for democracy, there is a fine line between effective negative advertising and bad negative advertising. As mentioned above Khan and and Kenny (1999) make a clear distinction between “legitimate negative information” and nonvital, unimportant and inappropriate negative advertising. Every negative ad has the same focus, criticize the opponent, however the type of negativity within an ad is very important because it changes ow effective it is. Negative ads that focus on legitimate information, for example current issues, a candidate’s voting record, or their position tend to be effective in creating a better democracy. They are better because they are substantiated claims, relating to specific issues, which inform the public or ignites their interest in or against a specific candidate and issue. However, the negative advertisements that focus on nonvital, unimportant and inappropriate information and attack a candidate’s character is referred to as mudslinging. The mudslinging advertisements are what tend to be the damaging ones as Khan and Kenney say.

The effectiveness of negative advertisements on democracy can also be thought of in terms of the discourtesy of the ad. Citizens are more inclined to say that advertisements focusing on the issues and a candidate’s stance is fair, but a negative ad focusing on the candidate’s character and personal ways are unfair (Brooks and Geer, 2007). They support this statement with their research as they found that “5% of people view a negative ad focusing on an “issue” as unfair, but 68% view an ad focusing on an extramarital affair is unfair.” Khan and Kenney (1999) further support this statement when they say, “When negative messages center on questionable topics and are presented in an excessively strident or pejorative manner, however, voters may become alienated and stay home” therefore having a negative effect on democracy.

The idea of fair verse unfair negative advertisements and legitimate versus mudslinging advertisements also relates to the effectiveness of these advertisements on democracy in another way. With the purpose of a negative advertisement to attack the opponent and decrease the support for an opponent, there are questions as to the effect it has on the candidate who supports it. Khan and Kenney (2004) find that negative ads do, in fact, decrease the evaluation of the target of the ad, it also leads to a decline in the evaluation of the sponsor. This effect is called the backlash effect. The extent to which a candidate experiences that backlash effect is based on how the public perceives the fairness and legitimacy of the ad. If the public deems it legitimate, fair and issue based, the sponsor is less likely to experience a decrease in evaluation. However, if the public perceives the ad as unfair and mudslinging, the candidate who supported it is more likely to experience a greater backlash effect (Mattes and Redlawsk, 2014).

The effect of negative advertisements and the effectiveness of using them is further questioned in relation to how the public perceives them. While the public may think that they are against negative political advertisements and their use within the election, this does not seem to be the case. As Geer (2006) writes, “46% “strongly agree” that negative campaigning is “undermining and damaging our democracy,” and 57% believe that negativity is making people less likely to vote.” However, Mattes and Redlawsk (2014) find a more nuanced explanation as to the public’s disdain for negative advertising. People are against negative advertisements when they are explicitly described as negative ads. Citizens do not mind an advertisement in which a candidate describes his opponent, particularly when it is related to issues rather than personal attacks. Mattes and Redlawsk explain these findings as, “only when we actually tell voters that this behavior is in fact negative campaigning do respondents recoil against it” (2014, p. 57).”

The idea that the connection between negative advertisements and their positive affect on democracy is very conditional and delicate is further supported by the research that who created and sponsored the advertisements affects the reception of it. The reason this distinction is so important is because in recent elections groups (who are independent, not associated with any candidate or party but can legally pay for advertisements) have accounted for more than a quarter of the political advertising in campaigns. Groups that sponsor political advertisements are more likely to use negative advertising, in 2012 85% of the ads produced by groups were negative, however when a candidate sponsored an ad only 50% were negative (Fowler & Ridout, 2012). Brooks and Murov (2002) find that a negative advertisement sponsored by a candidate is far more likely to receive backlash than a negative advertisement sponsored by a group that is hard to identify with a particular candidate or party.

Overall, there are many studies that focus on negative advertising and the effect it has on democracy. These studies have produced a great deal of diverse findings. These diverse finding suggest that negative campaigning has a very delicate and nuanced effect on democracy. Mainstream media, the public and sometimes even politicians criticize the use and effectiveness of political advertisements, however widely accepted research suggest otherwise. Negative advertisement if used incorrectly can have an adverse effect on democracy. This is because it can reduce the amount of voter turnout, when the focus of the advertisements is perceived as personal and unfair attacks. However, the majority of the research suggest that when negative political ads are used properly and focus on issues and perceived as legitimate negative information, they increase political participation because they are more memorable, may be viewed as more helpful and may ignite more interest in the campaign. Purely positive campaigns deprive citizens of the full range of information needed to make an informed decision regarding politics, whereas negative advertisements reveal the weaknesses and downfalls of a political candidate. A candidate will not sell the public their flaws, rather only what they do well and their positive traits therefore negative advertisements are not only good for democracy but necessary for it. Negative advertisements are also necessary and good for democracy because without negative ads, the incumbent has an incredibly large advantage over the challenger. A challenger can only unseat an incumbent by comparing what they can do better in comparison to the incumbent, how they can do it better and where the incumbent is failing- which inherently is negative advertising by every definition presented in the research.

Negative advertisements can be used incredibly effective, as seen in the Daisy ad, since they tend to be more factual, memorable and issue based, meaning more of a quality advertisement. The disdain that the public has for negative ads and the backlash that may result from them are some of the downfalls of resorting to negativity. There are many people that believe that negative advertisements are bad for democracy, however this is only the case when the negative ads are not issue based, supported and memorable. When used appropriately though, negative ads are not only good for democracy, but also necessary as they challenge candidates and spur growth.

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