I don't know about you, but I am about ready to abandon TV for the next few weeks. It's Netflix and DVDs for me until November 5th.
I’ve yet to hear anyone say “man, I sure love political ads,” as they watch the fourth spot in a row. In Iowa, we get more than our fair share of political ads so we know all too well how negative they are. If the race is tight — they’re ugly. If the candidate is behind in the polls by double digits — they’re nasty. As the election grows closer — they're vicious. And no matter what -- they're painfully plentiful.
So if we all react so badly to them, why do all of the candidates use these tactics? Odds are, considering the millions of dollars spent — it’s because they work. In fact, Kantar Media CMAG found spending on negative ads outpaced spending on positive ads 15-1 since 2010.
They do work but only in specific ways. They don’t get non voters to vote. They don’t change the opinion of someone who has already strongly aligned with a candidate. But they do influence voters with weak or no allegiance to a specific candidate.
Negative ads trigger an emotional response from us, especially if the topic is a hot button issue for the viewer. When someone sees an ad that frightens them, they get worried. As they worry, they start to investigate to see if the allegations are true.
The ads stir up the margins…the people who are undecided or a little wishy-washy in their decision about who should get their vote. Today, because most races are reasonably tight — influencing a few might make a difference.
It’s also why most negative ads are squarely aimed at emotionally charged issues. They want us to see red and to have a visceral reaction.
“One reason that negative messages are so compelling is that we are emotional creatures, wired to pay attention to harmful information,” said Joel Weinberger, a psychologist at Adelphi University in New York and owner of Implicit Strategies, a consulting firm that investigates unconscious influences on behavior. "Think of our ancestors on the African savannah," he said. "If you miss a leopard, it's over for you. If you miss a deer, oh well, you're hungry. People are more focused on negative information. People stop for a car wreck, but there are no traffic jams for beautiful flowers."
"In negative ads, they make a narrative for you that is supposed to brand the person," he added. "People say, 'I hate negative ads, they do nothing for me,' while unconsciously processing them. Emotion trumps cognition."
I think the escalation is partially our fault. Look at your Facebook feed or listen to your friends talk politics. We're just as bad as the candidates, only probably less informed. It's probbly a chicken and an egg situation -- but we are just fanning the flames.
Sadly this has been a problem for a long time, as the CNN video above proves out.
Until we as a state and ultimately, as a country, demand that we, our family and friends and the politicians stick to the issues and their plans for making things better and do it with a civil tongue, showing their opponent and their constituents some respect -- nothing is going to change.
Until then, thank goodness for Netflix.