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Do Political Attack Ads Really Work?

Political attack ads are a contentious tactic, often swaying emotions rather than presenting facts. Their effectiveness can hinge on the ad's ability to resonate with voters' existing beliefs and fears. While some dismiss them as noise, others are influenced, subtly shaping the electoral landscape. What's your take on their impact on your voting decisions? Share your thoughts as we explore further.
Ken Black
Ken Black

There is only one reason campaigns spend so much time and effort on political attack ads. They work. While they may work to varying degrees of effectiveness, there can be no doubt that, at least at some level, they do work.

While political science majors write reports arguing both sides and studies report findings both for and against the effectiveness of political attack ads, campaigns see it clearly. Many associated with the U.S. presidential campaign of John Kerry in 2004 blamed attack ads for costing their candidate the election. That year, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a number of ads questioning Kerry's service in Vietnam.

Televised political attack ads got started during Lyndon Johnson's reelection campaign.
Televised political attack ads got started during Lyndon Johnson's reelection campaign.

Political attack ads, especially through the medium of television, had their beginning during the 1964 election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. In an ad simply titled "Daisy," a little girl is seen counting petals off a flower. As the scene zooms in on her eye, a nuclear bomb explodes. Johnson then provides a voice over promoting peaceful means of addressing conflicts. Johnson's intention was clear. Goldwater was known as a war hawk that advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam and Russia.

Many of John Kerry's associates blamed attack ads for why he lost the 2004 Presidential Election.
Many of John Kerry's associates blamed attack ads for why he lost the 2004 Presidential Election.

Johnson won the election against Goldwater in a landslide. Many political analysts have credited that ad as a turning point in the election. While Johnson may have won the election without the commercial, the margin of victory was largely attributed to that ad.

However, while millions of dollars can be spent on negative campaigning through the form of political attack ads, campaigns must be careful in their use. Running political attack ads that are seen as attacking a person's character or personal issues can backfire. Ads must focus on issues related to the campaign in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.

Some political candidates may run negative campaign ads against their opponents in order to win elections.
Some political candidates may run negative campaign ads against their opponents in order to win elections.

Political attack ads also run the risk of bringing notoriety to the other candidate. There is a reason why product ads seldom mention other brands; they do not want to draw attention to them. This is why such ads often run comparing themselves to "the other leading brand." However, most political ads do mention their opponents because the construction of the ad would be too awkward without doing so.

While most people in democratic nations deplore political attack ads, if done correctly, they can produce a desired effect for a campaign. Candidates authorize millions of dollars to be spent on this tactic simply because it can produce an immediate, and lasting, benefit. In the end, political attack ads will continue to be used, despite the complaints, as long as candidates believe they get results.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do political attack ads have a significant impact on election outcomes?

Yes, political attack ads can have a significant impact on election outcomes. According to research, negative advertising can affect an undecided voter's perception of the targeted candidate, potentially swaying their decision. A study by the American Psychological Association found that negative political ads are more likely to be remembered than positive ones, which can influence voter behavior at the polls.

What is the psychological effect of attack ads on voters?

Attack ads can evoke strong emotional responses from voters, often leading to anger or fear about the targeted candidate. This emotional arousal can increase the likelihood of the ad's message being remembered. The American Psychological Association notes that negative information tends to be more persuasive than positive information, suggesting that attack ads can effectively shape voters' opinions by highlighting perceived flaws or missteps of political opponents.

Are attack ads more effective than positive campaign ads?

Effectiveness can vary depending on the context and the audience, but attack ads often have a more immediate and memorable impact. According to a study published in the Journal of Politics, negative ads are more likely to be discussed and shared among voters, which can amplify their reach and influence. However, this does not necessarily mean they are more effective in securing votes, as they can sometimes backfire and generate sympathy for the targeted candidate.

How do attack ads influence undecided voters?

Attack ads can play a pivotal role in influencing undecided voters by framing the narrative around a candidate's weaknesses or controversial actions. The information presented in these ads can fill informational gaps for undecided voters, potentially guiding their decision-making process. A report by the Wesleyan Media Project suggests that negative advertising can be particularly influential when voters have little knowledge about the candidates or issues.

Can attack ads backfire and hurt the candidate who sponsors them?

Yes, attack ads can backfire. If an ad is perceived as too harsh or unfair, it can damage the credibility of the candidate who sponsors it. Voters may view the attacking candidate as overly negative or untrustworthy. A study from the University of Iowa found that while negative ads tend to be effective, they can lead to a backlash effect, particularly if they are seen as irrelevant or personal attacks rather than focusing on substantive political issues.

What role does fact-checking play in mitigating the effects of attack ads?

Fact-checking plays a crucial role in mitigating the effects of attack ads by providing voters with accurate information to assess the claims made in these ads. When fact-checkers debunk false or misleading statements in attack ads, it can diminish the ad's credibility and influence. Organizations like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact offer nonpartisan analysis that helps voters navigate the accuracy of political advertisements.

How have social media platforms changed the landscape of political attack ads?

Social media platforms have dramatically changed the landscape of political attack ads by enabling rapid dissemination and targeted delivery to specific demographics. The interactive nature of social media also allows for immediate feedback and sharing, which can amplify the reach of these ads. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 55% of social media users are now "worn out" by political posts and discussions, indicating a potential over-saturation of political content, including attack ads.

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Discussion Comments

anon214665

I believe that most attack ads have the power to stun an opponent, but not deliver a knock-out blow. It's more like a death by a thousand cuts. The attacked candidate usually has an opportunity to respond, either defensively or offensively. I can think of a number of candidates who were bombarded by negative or attack ads and still managed to win the election.

To me, an effective attack ad against a candidate is the equivalent of a brush-back pitch in baseball. It doesn't exactly put the batter out of commission, but it does make him or her a little less confident in the batter's box.

An ineffective attack ad, however, makes me think twice about the candidate who approved it. I start to wonder if maybe he or she is feeling a little concerned about his or her own chances of winning over the public.

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    • Televised political attack ads got started during Lyndon Johnson's reelection campaign.
      By: John W. Schulze
      Televised political attack ads got started during Lyndon Johnson's reelection campaign.
    • Many of John Kerry's associates blamed attack ads for why he lost the 2004 Presidential Election.
      By: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
      Many of John Kerry's associates blamed attack ads for why he lost the 2004 Presidential Election.
    • Some political candidates may run negative campaign ads against their opponents in order to win elections.
      By: Photo_Ma
      Some political candidates may run negative campaign ads against their opponents in order to win elections.