Mendoza School of Business

Positive effects of negative political ads

Published: October 29, 2010 / Author: John Gaski

With the election season into high gear, hostility toward so-called negative political advertising seems to have reached epidemic proportions, as usual, among the general public nationwide as well as the chattering media class. The reaction is understandable on an emotional level, given the shallow, superficial thinking most people apply to such phenomena. Because this anti-negative attitude is at least partly grounded in ignorance, a brief tutorial is in order.

What is known in the political industry as “negative advertising” or “negative attacks” is a variant of the well-established promotional technique of comparative advertising, i.e., mentioning a competitor by name in an ad, usually in an unfavorable way. In normal commerce, the tactic is perfectly legal as long as the comparative message is true. (Laws prohibiting false advertising in business are very strict, but much looser in politics. You wouldn’t expect politicians to regulate themselves too closely, would you?)

What may come as a surprise to some readers is that not only is comparative commercial advertising legal, but, among public regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission and also scholars who study the subject scientifically, it is considered socially desirable, on balance, as a positive informational force. The reason for this paradox is that comparative – even negative – advertising improves the information environment for consumers by revealing information they otherwise would not likely obtain, thereby facilitating more informed choices. The same applies to negative political advertising and the corresponding positive consequences for voters. Moreover, an additional benefit is that negative political ads are more likely to contain substantive, policy-oriented material. So, you see, some seemingly self-evident truth (“negative advertising is bad”) actually is not true at all. It’s not the first time in the political realm for this epiphany, is it?

Think about it. How much have you learned about the candidates in your political market, either this season or in previous elections, through each other’s comparative ads? Aren’t there many facts you never would have received had the candidates’ freedom of speech been constrained to positive, fluffy messages about themselves? The negative campaigning may be unpleasant for the audience, or maybe people just posture as if offended out of political correctness, but “politics ain’t beanbag,” as the old saying goes. To be clear, this defense of conventional comparative advertising is not an endorsement of personal, ad hominem, mudslinging attacks or the “politics of personal destruction” as practiced in the 1990s at the highest level of national government. But substantive negative ads can actually be helpful communication.

Again, the public informational benefit of negative political advertising is reaped as long as the message content is not objectively false or deceptive. The candidates who have engaged in the negativity have generally, and ironically, performed a public service. (People who are annoyed by the tactic because of their misunderstanding need to grow up and get over it.) The one exception, to reiterate, is false advertising, and only a few confirmed offenders in venues around the country had ads taken down by TV stations during the election cycles in 2006 and 2008 – primarily because of the special rules for third-party advertising, e.g., by state party organizations or 527 special-interest groups.

That is not a bad record overall, especially in view of the aforementioned positive effects. Of course, the situation would be improved if all political advertising – rather than just some of it, negative or otherwise – were required to be true and substantiated – as is mandated for commercial communication. Perhaps a new breed of politician will be needed to advance and impose such a rule. Maybe those who come from the business sector would be the right type, having had to abide by the standard of truthful comparative advertising all along – just a wild thought. But the main message here is: Relax, don’t worry, be happy; negative political advertising almost certainly does more good than harm.

On that issue, one final observation, this time a hypothesis: It is generally the pols who deserve the most criticism who decry negative (or comparative) advertising the loudest whenever it is they who are scrutinized. Perhaps that hypersensitivity is why certain candidates have tried creatively and falsely to define any disagreement with them, or even a question they don’t like, as mudslinging. Watch for this tendency.


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