Attack ads flood election season, and a UM professor sought to explore the effects of these negative political advertisements.
A new study by Juliana Fernandes, assistant professor of strategic communications at the School of Communication, shows that negative advertising is most effective when aired in moderation, but can have backlash if shown very frequently.
The study was conducted at the University of Florida with students who participated in two separate tests.
The first test had 150 students watch a series of advertisements that included multiple product ads and a negative political ad about a candidate that participants were unlikely to recognize. The participants were exposed to the ad either one, three or five times.
In the second experiment, Fernandes had 306 students watch a 30-minute television program interspersed with product advertisements and ads for the candidate to create a more realistic setting.
The participants were asked to evaluate the sponsor of the ad and the attacked candidates, as well as their likelihood of voting for them.
The results showed that 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 addition, the study found that with longer time intervals between repetition of the ad, people were more in line of the sponsor candidate and held a more negative opinion 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.
“This shows that if a candidate chooses to use negative ads, they should choose a schedule that’s spread out with a wider time frame,” Fernandes said. “So for each repetition, a person can learn a little. If it’s all at once, people get tired, bored and turn it off.”
Fernandes said she hopes for this study to benefit candidates who do not have the money to make several advertisements, so they can instead air one advertisement strategically.
“It depends on what message your ad is conveying, but you don’t need a large budget to have a good campaign,” said sophomore Samantha Levy, an advertising major.
Fernandes also hopes it will help raise awareness on how individuals learn and how to best utilize that knowledge. People learn through repetition, she said.
“It helps memory and learning if we watch something over and over again,” Fernandes said. “We will even be able to learn about candidates and their issues and traits, and because it’s a negative ad, people will be able to evaluate it more critically. More informed voters will be more critical of who they are voting for and will seek more information.”
This study, “Effects of Negative Political Advertising and Message Repetition on Candidate Evaluation” will be published in the March 2013 edition of the journal “Mass Communication and Society.”
In the future, Fernandes aims to continue investigating the effects of negative advertisements on voter behavior by incorportaing information such as party affiliation and gender.