Study: How to Get Positive Results From Negative Ads

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Members of Congress may have landed themselves a budget deal on Friday, but their actions and reactions leading up to the accord will likely resurface as campaign-ad fodder. As with every cycle, some of those ads will be negative. But only some of those, ranging as they do from petulant mudslinging to polite objections, will have the desired effects — i.e. turning people off of Candidate A and, perhaps, on to Candidate B.

An article in the current issue of the American Journal of Political Science investigated what makes a negative ad into a successful ad. Patrick Kenney, one of the study’s authors and a political science professor at Arizona State University, breaks down the findings into two elements: what makes a good message and what makes a good “receiver” — a voter whom the ad will affect.

In terms of substance, Kenney says the more effective ads have two components: commentary on a relevant issue and a uncivil tone. “We know most people don’t care about this kind of stuff, so you have to capture their attention,” he says of using shrill, pejorative style. The study provides some examples of “civil” and “uncivil” tones from the 2006 senatorial campaign spots they used in the experiment:

The following are sentences taken from advertisements categorized as civil by coders: “The candidate voted 18 times to raise taxes,” or “He talks conservative, but his record says otherwise.” In comparison, advertisements  with the following messages were coded as uncivil in tone: “The Senator shows a disgusting display of arrogance,” or “After all these years, can’t he offer more than smears and distortions?”

“Relevant” messages included positions on almost any standard issue, from climate change to the economy to health care. Kenney and his ASU colleague Kim Fridkin also argue that some personality traits, like leadership ability and competence, are meaningful, too. “Stuff that isn’t relevant are things like what their family is doing or their drug use in college. Or even an issue position that they took that is no longer on the agenda,” Kenney says. (Former Rep. Charlie Melancon’s highly stylized attack on David Vitter’s sex life, which failed to derail the incumbent in the last election, comes to mind.)

To identify who might be most responsive to the ads, Kenney and his colleague gauged people’s tolerance for the back-and-forth. “The hardcore Boston or New York elite person who’s watching political ads, they’re not phased by negativity,”  Kenney says. “But if you troop out there in small towns of Iowa, you’re going to find people who are saying, ‘Wow. That is really a hard-hitting ad. I can hardly even watch that.’”

In general, the authors found those demure types are most affected by negative messages, while they “bounce off” those with a higher tolerance. The highest-tolerance demographic, if we combine the study’s findings on individual qualities, would be a young, male conservative with strong attachment to his party and political sophistication, meaning an ability to sort through relevant and irrelevant messages. (I take this to mean there’s no amount of negativity in the world that would rock, say, James O’Keefe III.) The more malleable target audience then is older, liberal women who have negligible affection for Democrats and have trouble knowing where their interests lie. Kenney is quick to admit that the results aren’t air-tight because “tolerance” is such a broad quality to identify, but he says their work will prove a good starting point.

There remains a disconnect, which Kenney acknowledges, between how quick politicians are to run negative ads and how effective political scientists have proven those ads to be. Even if there are better or worse versions of the negative ad, the most effective one theoretically makes much smaller waves than the wave-makers imagine. Which means, as 2012 approaches, candidates might consider chucking all the negatives and following in the steps of politicians like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who won last cycle taking literal showers to wash off the dirty politics. But then again, the Republican candidates in that race did a pretty good job of tarring themselves.