The science of attack ads

Sadie Dingfelder reviews the latest research on political advertising.

In one study, published in 2005 in the American Journal of Political Science, Brader and his colleagues found that campaign ads that make people feel fear — with ominous music and grainy images of drugs and violence — caused people to seek more information and remember more facts from a newscast aired afterward. Ads that sparked feelings of enthusiasm in viewers — with upbeat music and images of flags and smiling children — reduced viewers’ interest in learning more about candidates’ positions, he found. “Fear ads heighten attentiveness and weaken people’s reliance on partisan habits, while enthusiasm ads reassure you, and reaffirm the choice you’ve already made,” Brader says…

In the past, campaigns have been wary of deploying negative ads for fear of backlash, says Ridout. However, that may be changing as campaign operatives see evidence that negative ads can break through party affiliations and also sway independent voters. A case in point: Mitt Romney’s February landslide in the Florida Republican primary came on the heels of the “most negative advertising campaign in history,” according to the nonprofit Campaign Media Analysis Group. The week before the primary, 99 percent of Romney’s ads were negative, while 95 percent of Newt Gingrich’s ads were negative.

Dingfelder also looks at the next frontier in political ads: subliminal messaging.