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Negative Campaign Ads Can Work for Candidates When Used Judiciously, Study Finds

People in this presidential election’s battleground states are being inundated by millions of dollars’ worth of negative political advertising from both the Obama and Romney campaigns.

A researcher at a university in one of those states, Florida, has conducted a study with potential implications for that controversial element of campaign strategy. The study, by Juliana B. Fernandes, an assistant professor of strategic communication at the University of Miami, looked into the question of how to measure the difference between just enough negative advertising and too much.

Her research has concluded that negative ads are an effective tool for campaigns, if used strategically and in moderation. Using university students as subjects, the study evaluated how variables such as repetition and timing affect the way negative political ads are perceived by viewers. An article resulting from the study, “Effects of Negative Political Advertising and Message Repetition on Candidate Evaluation,” will be published in the March 2013 issue of the journal Mass Communication and Society.

In one experiment, Ms. Fernandes showed participants a 30-second negative advertisement one, three, or five times. Results indicated that that positive perception of the candidate sponsoring the ad was highest when the participants saw the ad three times and lowest when they saw it five times.

“For voters and individuals to actually understand the political process and the candidates, they need to be exposed to a certain number of messages,” Ms. Fernandes says. However, if potential voters are overexposed to the messages in a short period of time, they react negatively, having already heard the message and become tired of it or bored.

“Repetition can work, but it works when you use it strategically, in a spaced-out manner,” says Ms. Fernandes.

In another experiment, participants watched political advertisements embedded in a television program, with varying time intervals between ad repetitions. The data showed that longer time intervals between ad repetitions resulted in a more positive perception of the candidate sponsoring the ad, even if the repetition was increased up to five times.

The study indicates that such spacing can minimize viewers’ negative reactions and provide the basis for an effective strategy for candidates with low-budget campaigns. Such candidates, Ms. Fernandes suggests, may be able to save money on ad production and use just a few ads repetitively over time.

Ms. Fernandes sees additional value in negative campaign advertising, pointing out that previous research has shown that voters pay more attention to negative information than positive information. Being attentive to negative statements about a candidate “might raise people’s curiosity to actually investigate that claim, and consequently they will learn and have a more informed opinion about that candidate,” she says.

If Ms. Fernandes worked for one of the presidential candidates, she says, she would tell them, “‘OK, yes, we could go negative. But let’s be careful because right now is a very critical point in the campaign. And if you really overwhelm your voters, you might lose them.’”

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