New data an early warning to political consultants.
It’s still Conventional Wisdom – political consultants and campaign managers default to negative political ads “because they work.” As a political consultant who grew up in the era of highly negative campaigning, I used to remind my colleagues “If you’re not attacking, you’re losing.”
That’s why I’m paying particularly close attention to the in-house Google Survey IAgreetoSee.com just completed on one aspect of political ads – believability. We asked 1,000 self-identified registered voters which kind of ads they found most accurate and, by a margin of eight to one, respondents chose positive ads over negative ads. (Although it is worth noting– “Don’t Know” was nearly the winner).
A self-reporting bias is common on the topic of negative ads, with focus group panels almost always reporting an aversion to the negative ads, but then tracking polls and election results usually show that negative campaigns work.
We suspected we would see a similar bias in this quick survey – which is why we wrote the question specifically to give the negative ads a fair chance. We didn’t ask which ads respondents like more, or which ads are more likely to sway their votes. We already knew from hundreds of focus groups that voters would almost certainly report they didn’t like negative campaigning and negative ads did not change their votes. That’s why we specifically asked – which ads did voters think had more accurate information?
We left the door open for voters to see negative ads as more accurate – which, in our experience as political consultants, is largely the case. Positive ads can be simply glossy aspirations, but, to clear legal standards at most American TV stations, negative ads need to be factually accurate.
By even asking the question in this way – it wasn’t even close. Just 6.2 percent of the 1,000 registered voters described negative ads as more accurate, with 48.5 percent choosing the positive ads. Fully 45.3 percent said they didn’t know – which is probably a reflection of the general skepticism voters are developing around most political ads.
Our survey found no statistical difference between men and women – they both overwhelmingly found positive ads more accurate. Only outliers – very young voters and voters between the ages of 45-54 – were somewhat more likely to find the negative ads accurate, although both these groups still found the positive ads as more accurate – at least in theory.
A Second Look at Negative Political Ads
While my recent experience teaches me there is still a core truth to the notion that political attacks unanswered can be devastating, over the past few campaign cycles we’ve seen more campaigns push for an “all positive” approach.
Since IAgreetoSee.com is all about political ads, and I make political ads at Storefront Political Media, we’re taking a close look at this data to understand how, or if, it will change the work we do for campaigns and causes.
Our first take on the data – we’re still largely dealing with self-reporting bias. Voters say they don’t like negative ads, yet continually respond to them.
Our second take away – remind ourselves constantly that voters have a high degree of skepticism about all political ads. The very high percentage of respondents saying they ‘Didn’t Know’ shows many voters were trying to say “Neither,” which was not an option in this survey.
And finally, we hope this data does reflect a change in the electorate, with greater resistance to negative ads than in earlier election cycles. In all but the rarest moments, it is a great deal more satisfying to create political content that asks voters to support something rather than media that attacks someone. So we hope this is one data point showing a trend toward the positive in political advertising.
We’ll keep an eye out for more data, and we will keep you posted at www.IAgreetoSee.com.
(Eric Jaye is the proprietor of Storefront Political Media. You can follow him at @EricJaye)