Frequency of attack ads more impactful than message

By Kyle Rich

Political advertisements can be a powerful weapon for embattled candidates. Some attack policy, while others are more personal. But a new study suggests that it isn’t the content of negative political ads that make them effective but the way

they’re presented.

Juliana Fernandes, an assistant professor at the University of Miami in Florida who specializes in political communication, supervised the study, which will be published in the March 2013 issue of the Mass Communication and

Society journal.

The study, conducted by U of M students, was done in two parts. The pilot study focused only on how frequently ads are shown, and the main study focused on how often and far apart they

are shown.

In the pilot study, Fernandes and her team showed participants a series of negative political ads dispersed among product ads.

Fernandes explained that the researchers were investigating how repetition would affect how viewers perceived the candidate sponsoring the ad. They found that after three exposures, participants had more favorable opinions of the candidate who sponsored the ad. But, after five airings, viewers’ opinions became

increasingly negative.

After establishing this pattern, Fernandes evaluated the results in a real-life setting in which participants were shown political ads over the course of a 30-minute show. Fernandes controlled the number of times the ads played in addition to how much time elapsed between exposures. She found that the frequency of the ads didn’t matter as much as the amount of time

between them.

According to Fernandes, the study found longer delays between negtive ads make people more likely to accept their messages. This led her to believe that candidates should be cautious about when and how often ads are shown, so as not to trigger a backlash.

“If candidates want to construct a media schedule, they should use negative ads strategically, not overwhelmingly,” she said. “They should not show them all at once but spread [them] out.”

Robert Bruhl, a clinical assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is not surprised by the findings.

“I suspect that that’s true just from the psychological standpoint,” Bruhl said. “When you hear something over and over, you stop paying attention. That’s a

psychological principle.”

Bruhl said he believes that political ads are often used to confirm political beliefs and do not just

inform decisions.

“Voters vote by habit and vote emotionally,” Bruhl said. “The attack ads can confirm [those sentiments]. Suppose you’re a Democrat and you don’t like Republicans: when you hear an attack ad on a Republican, it simply enforces your belief against Republicans and

vice versa.”

Paul Vasquez, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Central Florida, said he believes that political ads can help uninformed voters reach a decision.

“[Political ads] help voters who are largely otherwise uninformed to make careful evaluations of the candidates,” Vasquez said. “Low-information voters who see a Romney ad saying all the great things he’s done, and an Obama ad saying all the great things he’s done … will be struck with a ‘both of these guys are equally good’ situation. So I think negative ads may help voters, to some degree, reach a decision.”

He added that he believes low-information voters can be easily swayed by political ads.

“I certainly think there are low-information voters who [can be naïve enough] to make a political vote based solely on an attack ad,” Vasquez said.

Fernandes said her personal curiosity drove her to conduct

the study.

“I have always been fascinated with the amount of political advertising that we have here in this country,” Fernandes said. “Especially negative advertising. I’m mostly just fascinated [by] how big of an impact negative information can have on people.”