Study: Political Campaign Attack Ads are Most Effective in Moderation

In a study to be published next year in  Mass Communication and Society, Assistant Professor Juliana Fernandes  found that negative political ads work best when they are shown in moderation.

Higher exposure to a negative ad has a backlash effect on the evaluation of the sponsor candidate, according to her study.

“People will be more likely to appreciate and vote for the candidate that is sponsoring the negative advertisement, if the ad is presented in a spaced-out manner, over time,” Fernandes said. “A candidate that doesn’t have a large budget for political advertising can use the same advertising over and over again; but in a way that is more strategic.”

In the study, university students participated in two separate experiments.  First, 150 participants watched the repetition of a 30-second negative political ad of candidates that were likely unknown to participants (one, three, or five exposures). The ads were presented sequentially, characterizing the presentation as massive. The results show that evaluation and the likelihood of voting for the sponsor candidate was highest when the participants were exposed to the ad three times and lowest when they were exposed to the ad five times. In the second test, 306 university students watched advertisements of unknown candidates within a 30-minute television program, with varying time intervals between ad repetitions. Afterwards participants filled out questionnaires to evaluate the sponsor and the attacked candidates, as well as the likelihood of voting for them.

The results indicate that larger time intervals between repetitions of the ad favor the evaluation of the sponsor candidate and disfavor the evaluation of the target candidate. This was true even with increased repetition, suggesting that the sponsor candidate can avoid the backlash effect by allowing larger time intervals between ad exposures.

“In my study I show that negative political ads do work under certain conditions,” Fernandes said.  “I think they can help the political process, because people can look at some facts, process the information more carefully and later on — when people cast their votes — they can make an informed decision.”

Entitled “Effects of Negative Political Advertising and Message Repetition on Candidate Evaluation,” the article will be published in the March 2013 issue of the journal Mass Communication and Society.

Click here to visit Fernandes’ Web site.

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