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Good Question Revisited: Why Do Negative Ads Work?

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Election Booths
Alan Gionet Good Question
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The following report originally appeared on cbs4denver.com and aired on CBS4 News in 2006. 

CBS4 (DENVER) — New, negative political ads have been coming out daily in hopes they affect or sway voters. Even if they drive you nuts, they seem to have an effect.

So CBS4 asked the Good Question: Why do negative ads work?

“I hate the negative ads,” said voter Rita Sokolowski. “It makes you want the election to be over like now.”

She said if she hasn’t been voting since she was a teenager, she wouldn’t bother. But the fact is, study after study shows negative ads work. That’s why they are ubiquitous in election season.

Political consultant David Kenney of the Kenney Group said there’s a formula to the ads; stay away from things like a candidate’s family and go after the record.

“So it’ll be a voting record, it’ll be a personal financial record, it’ll be a divorce record,” Kenney said.

Anything that’s solidly negative and even personal.

But while some might think the ads are run to solidify the base, that’s far from the core purpose.

“If you’re a Rep and there’s a hard attack ad against your party or your candidate, it’s going to tend to make you defensive about your candidate,” Kenney said. “It’s going to make you more loyal, strengthen your support for your candidate, but if you’re in the middle it may form a lasting negative impression of that person.”

It’s the voters in the middle who have yet to decide and may make up their minds while at the polls. If there’s one thing they remember about a candidate before they register their vote, campaigns are hoping what you’ll remember about the opposition is negative.

“But for those swing voters who haven’t made their minds up and in that last week … don’t know much about the records of the candidates, they’re often left with an impression and those emotional ads tend to stick better with voters than the intellectual arguments,” Kenney said.

People don’t remember issues as much as they remember negatives. It’s just human nature.

But aside from the obvious fingernails-on-the-chalkboard effect of negative ads, there’s another lingering concern.

“I think negative ads do suppress turnout and turn people off to politics and I think that’s in part why we see lower participation now in elections than we used to,” Kenney said.

– Written by Alan Gionet
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