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Money talks: Often, it's negative.

"Obamaville," and anti-Obama ad by the now defunct Santorum campaign made some viewers laugh. That probably was not the intended reaction.

This election year has seen a huge increase in the amount of money being spent on political campaigns compared to previous years. A lot of that money is being spent on negative political ads on TV.

As Michigan’s primary election gets closer, and the general election is only four months away, we’re going to see more and more political TV ads. And the bulk of those ads are going to be negative ads.

“I hear the negativity all the time. I’m tired of it. Tell me what it is you want to do not what you think the other guy is going to do," said Troy Hemphill.

“I don’t like to listen to that. I want some positive information," Kiirsten Olson insisted.

“Even when you think, ‘I’m not going to listen to negative ads, I’m not going to listen to negative ads,’ and then one creeps inside your brain. And then it sticks,” Shannon Rubago bemoaned.

Those are pretty typical responses of a couple of groups of people we talked to. We showed them a series of negative ads to see what their reactions would be.

The first group was a family in Lansing. Kiirsten Olson works at a pet supply distribution company. Her son, Aaron Olson is attending community college after serving in the Army. He was with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. Her daughter Kayla Olson is attending Finlandia University this fall.

Kiirsten describes herself as mostly Democrat with an independent streak. She says she usually has the same reaction to negative ads.

“Generally, if I’m watching a television program, and I see some ad come on, click goes the remote because I just tune those out. Because, generally, there’s no good information,” she said.

As we watched ads on the computer, sitting at their kitchen table, nobody seemed too impressed by them.  Aaron says he’s an independent liberal but likes some Republican positions. He sees some value in the ads although probably not what the ads’ producers were hoping for.

“Most of the time, I’ll leave them on and watch them for comic value and then do my research later.”

He says he’ll check out the candidates using internet resources.

Kayla says she’s a very liberal Democrat. She doesn’t trust the ads, doesn’t learn much from them. But she seemed appalled by an anti-Obama ad put out by the now-ended Rick Santorum campaign, an apocalyptic vision of America in horror film style…

AD: (sound of crows, ominous music, wind howling) "Imagine a small American town two years from now if Obama is reelected."

To my knowledge, the ad was only online and did not run on TV. Kayla says if this popped up on television, she'd have look twice.

"Did I actually just see that? I would have to have some time to fully absorb it, thinking how incredibly stupid it was,” she laughed.

She was not a fan of the spooky sounding ad. Other people laughed out loud, thinking it was the most comical negative ad they'd ever seen. Again, likely not the response the producers intended.

The other group we talked to was a couple of guys who live in Lenawee County.  Both work in manufacturing and both say they’re independent with conservative leanings.

Troy Hemphill says he thought some of the ads were just over the top, especially a Newt Gingrich ad attacking Mitt Romney.

AD: (ending) "If we can't trust what Mitt Romney says about his own record, how can we trust him on anything?"

“That disgusts me," Hemphill exclaimed.  "Did it work for me? It got me riled up if that’s working. Yeah. I hate that kind of stuff.”

His friend, Shannon Rubago, is skeptical about any negative political ad. He thinks they’re manipulative and often twist the truth beyond recognition.

“We found some dirt under your rug. [Laughter] We’re going to make you sound so terrible like who could ever possibly trust you?”

So if people hate political ads and are so skeptical about them, then why do the campaigns keep buying time on TV to air them?

“Negative information is more memorable.”

Nicholas Valentino is a Research Professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.

“We think that might be in part because when you hear negative information, you might be hearing about problems or potential threats, whereas positive information suggests everything is going fine and you don’t really need to remember the details.”

LG: One study I read indicated we might be hard-wired to receive negative information. If you miss the tiger stalking you, you’re dead. If you miss the deer, you’re just hungry.

“That’s right. So, that’s the evolutionary argument for why negative information is retained more readily and that might very well pertain to political arguments as well.”

And Valentino says besides negative ads being more memorable, they also have more to say about candidates’ positions.

“The best content analysis out there of this information suggests that the negative ads have more information in them, more policy information in them than positive ads. Positive ads are simpler usually, they’re much more vacuous in terms of concrete, actionable information on average," he said.


  • #1: we remember the negative ads better.
  • #2: We get more information in those ads, although the content is often presented out of context.

And there's a third factor: negative ads tend to motivate voters more. They make people angry, and angry people take action. They vote. They contribute to political causes and candidates. They volunteer for campaigns.

The political consultants don’t always pay that much attention to what the professors study. But, those political consultants, on a gut level, agree with much of the research.

“You're talking about what people remember. They don’t remember the positive ads. The positive ads are too boring."

Mark Grebner is a political consultant with Practical Political Consultant. He’s also a candidate this year, running for the Ingham County drain commissioner, and he’s running a negative campaign, attacking incumbent Pat Lindemann.

“Because negative ads are memorable, because negative ads are about conflict and conflict draws people’s attention," he said.

What the researchers and the experts in politics have learned seems to make sense to the voters we talked to. Shannon Rubago admits they get his attention, but he doesn’t have to like it.

“At the end of the day, negative ads work," he said. "Even if we hate the fact that they work, and we don’t want to listen to them, and we’re tired of negativity, we want to hear positive stuff. We want to hear, you know, ‘Yea. Let’s do this. Let’s get on board.’ We want to hear that half-time pep talk.”

But Rubago and the others we talked to know they won’t be getting many of those half-time pep talks.

The negative ads get to us. And the political campaign strategists know they do.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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