What We All Know About Campaign Ads Is Wrong

Here at MPP we try to entertain and inform while grounding our opinions on social science research. One example is my post Do Political Campaigns Matter? I asked the question in the context of the Brown-Warren and Tierney-Tisei races and linked to some good political science research discussed at the Washington Post and themonkeycage.org. So here is praise to those two outlets for more informative discussion, this time exposing Five Myths About Campaign Ads.

We all know that negative ads work better than positive ads; political consultants live by that maxim. Uh-uh. That is myth number one. The University of Michigan’s Ted Brader, who wrote the Washington Post article, says there are positive and negative ads that serve different  purposes, but in most cases the line between positive and negative is so blurred as to  make it impossible to determine which is superior. (But I think we are still all glad for The People’s Pledge).

Brader’s second myth is that campaign ads are uninformative. No, he says, ads actually provide information to individuals who might not otherwise be following the race. For those Massachusetts citizens still undecided, they are about to have their viewing routines inundated with information about Scott Brown’s independence, Elizabeth Warren’s fight for the middle class, Richard Tisei’s partisan loyalty and of course, John Tierney’s in-laws. Cringe if we wish, but those viewers will be better informed than they would without the ads.

The tragedy is that those uninformed dummies are more easily swayed by the ads. No, that would be myth number three. Brader writes that “We respond emotionally to things we care about. Political advertising arouses the strongest reactions in those who care and know the most about politics.” Makes sense to me. If you want to read that Scott Brown is a sub-literate Wall St. dupe, visit Bluemassgroup.com.  For the conviction that Democrats share both the Soviet Union’s outlook on the economy and its approach to corruption, click on Redmassgroup.com. Those sites react to every campaign ad with excitement. The less informed voter? – Meh.

If only Michael Dukakis had responded to the Willie Horton ads, or John Kerry to the Swift Boat spots, how different history would be! Well, maybe. But myth number four is that a campaign should respond to an attack ad with a counterattack on the same issue. Brader says it depends on the issue. If it cuts to the core of a candidate’s strength like the Swift Boat ads, it pays to respond. But at other times the counterattack only pulls the candidate off message.

Thank heavens though that truth-seeking mainstream media fact-check candidates ads and provide a corrective that keeps the campaigns honest. Sorry, but that is myth number five. There is no clear evidence that the fact-check efforts work. They may even make the original charge work better.

After Labor Day it will feel like all regularly scheduled programming has been canceled in favor of political ads. Keep the Five Myths About Campaign Ads in mind and you’ll be a more informed citizen – even if you actually are paying attention to the campaign.



About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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