The art and science of negative campaign ads

Trump vs. Clinton may be the nastiest campaign in living memory. But that doesn't mean it's bad for democracy

Politicians rarely take the high road. But in 2014, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper did just that, winning reelection without running any negative ads against his Republican challenger. In May, Hickenlooper told "Face the Nation" that he made that decision because negative campaigning is "depressing the product category of democracy," warning that young people were "just tuning out" of the political process.

It’s an idea you hear a lot in 2016. As Donald Trump’s supporters chant "Lock her up!" from the convention floor, and Hillary Clinton runs a commercial implying a Trump presidency would mean the end of childhood innocence, pundits are rehashing the conventional wisdom that all this negativity will depress voter turnout in November.

Though it’s hard to say where the idea comes from, it clearly has deep roots in American politics. In 2012, President Obama’s senior campaign analyst David Axelrod — a man who knows a thing or two about elections — blamed negative ads run by the GOP for low voter turnout during the primaries. "I think this long-grinding negative campaign has really deflated interest in their candidates," he said at the time. Voters even seem to have internalized the idea: Research by the Ohio Media Project found that moderate voters say a "nasty campaign" makes them "just want to stay home."

But no matter how logical the concept, research and history don’t really bear it out. Not only doesn’t negative campaigning depress voter turnout, research suggests, it might actually motivate people to volunteer for campaigns and show up at the polls. Fear is a pretty strong motivator, too.

"People turn out to vote if they are inspired. But they also turn out if they are scared," said Mark McKinnon, who was chief media advisor for both George W. Bush presidential campaigns and is co-founder of No Labels, an organization that advocates for bipartisan problem solving. "It could be that voters see the opposing party’s nominee as such a grave threat to their security — economic and national — that voter turnout is actually quite high."

The 2008 presidential election — the last one with no incumbent running — had the highest voter turnout since 1968. But analysis shows between 60% and 70% of the ads run during the campaign were negative, far higher than in 2004, which had substantially lower turnout.

A study from earlier this year said attack ads were ineffective at "driving down turnout for the competition." It found that while an increase in advertising was strongly correlated with higher turnout (candidates running 50% more ads increased turnout among their party’s constituents by 0.85%), "it is only positive advertisements that are effective in driving turnout."

And one of the most heavily cited meta-analyses about negative advertising, conducted by researchers from Rutgers and George Washington University, didn’t find "any reliable evidence that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout." Most of the 57 studies it looked at found only very small changes in voter turnout. Some were negative, but in aggregate, more of them were actually positive. "If anything, negative campaigning more frequently appears to have a slight mobilizing effect," the analysis said.

"The evidence that negativity reduces turnout is actually pretty thin," said Travis N. Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks advertising in federal elections. "For every person who is turned off by negative and stays home, there is another person who gets angry by the damage that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will do the country and is inspired to turn out to vote."

The Rutgers/GWU analysis did find that negative ads "slightly lower feelings of political efficacy, trust in government, and possibly overall public mood." But it still found no correlation between the electorate’s mood and voter turnout. Negative ads make us depressed, angry jerks, it turns out, but they don’t keep people from voting.

Of course, advertisers have known for years that negative ads don’t stop people from buying products. Apple’s "1984" ad compared IBM to one of the most chilling regimes in Western literature. And things got so ugly between Coke and Pepsi in the 1980s that we now refer to "The Cola Wars" without irony or sarcasm. "Comparative advertising has been around forever," said Lenny Stern, founding partner of SS+K, which was the youth agency of record for the Obama media team in 2008 and 2012. "It’s some of the most effective work ever. I think a lot of people say they don’t want to see it and don’t respond to it, but emotionally, they often do."

True, Pepsi never suggested we put Coke in prison, and Avis never told Hertz to "delete your account." But that’s largely a matter of law. Political speech enjoys ironclad protection thanks to the First Amendment. There are no legal constraints stopping political rhetoric from veering into vitriol, hate speech or "truthful hyperbole." Politicians can accuse their opponents of nearly anything and misrepresent positions and records without regard for libel laws – anything to get voters worked up. Brands don’t have that luxury.

So we may never know what would happen if Coke claimed that Pepsi was endangering our children, or if Dollar Shave Club pushed the idea that Gillette orchestrated the Kennedy assassination.

That’s probably for the best. Negative ads might work, but they don’t guarantee success – a lesson Stern said political campaigns need to remember, no matter how much mud they end up throwing.

"In elections, you actually want to believe in the affirmative of why you are doing something," he said. People always want to find a reason to feel good about way they’re voting, not just a reason to vote against. The campaigns will have to live up to that during this election cycle."

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free