They’re Baaaaaack!

What’s scarier than ominous political attack ads? Record early spending indicates even more to come.
Illustrations by Darcy Muenchrath

It’s 6 p.m. You’ve just poured yourself that after-work relaxer and want to settle in and watch the evening news. You get the latest headlines, and then it’s time for a commercial. This is an election year; so you can guess what’s coming: a political attack ad that goes something like:

OMINOUS SOUNDING MALE OR FEMALE VOICE: “We all want a safe place to raise our families. Good schools and a clean environment. So why doesn’t (insert random politician name here; show grainy, unflattering photograph) want what’s good for America? (Politician) voted for (scary sounding bill), which would hurt America and make our kids cry. Ask (politician), ‘Why do you not like the children?’ ”

This is followed by a disclaimer: “Paid for by the committee to swaddle babies in American flags.”

Or this: A typical American couple is sitting at the kitchen table looking at the bills piling up.

WIFE: “These bills keep going higher. I wish (random politician) would think about what we need.”
HUSBAND: “You bet. (Politician) sure is a Washington insider. I wish he thought more about us and less about his special interest friends.”
OMINOUS VOICE: “(Random politician): Washington insider. Bad for real America.”
DISCLAIMER: “Paid for by the real American committee for really American Americans.”

The ads are clearly make-believe, but the template is pretty accurate. Watch political advertising anywhere in the country, and you can simply change the names and pictures, and run the same ad.

We all say we hate negative ads. Yet we’re still bombarded with them, and it’s about to get worse.

Michigan will elect a new U.S. senator, several members of the House, and a governor. Money is already flowing into these races, and it shows up in the form of TV ads. How many? As many as local TV stations can fit, apparently. That costs money.

How much remains to be seen, but we do have estimates. In one race alone, the one for the open Senate seat between Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Terri Lynn Land, that estimate comes in at about $50 million, based on the current pace of spending. If that number seems high, it is. Much higher than estimates at the beginning of the year, when the race was expected to cost a much more reasonable $30 million (yes, I’m being facetious).

Through Memorial Day, Senate candidates Land and Peters, and their supporters, had spent just under $10 million on television ads in our state (Land supporters have outspent Peters by nearly $2 million). A big chunk — well over $3 million spent on ads so far — comes from outside organizations. The bulk of that advertising is airing in metro Detroit, and it’s still early. We haven’t reached Labor Day and already we’re inundated. When the other statewide races kick in, expect the ads, especially the negative type, to intensify in both message and frequency.

Obviously, campaigns and political organizations wouldn’t spend gobs of money on negative ads if they didn’t think they worked. The theory is simple. Pummel a voter with a message over and over and hope it finally sinks in by Election Day.

Does the data support that theory? Unfortunately for the viewer, the answer is probably yes.

Donald Green is a political science professor at Columbia University. A 2006 study he did in Texas showed that advertising could boost a candidate’s numbers pretty significantly, up to five points, but that the boost was short-lived, less than a week.

So, frequency and repetition clearly matter. This explains the massive ad buys. But why so many negative ads? Because they seem to work better.

A 2005 study by Ted Brader, a University of Michigan political science professor, found political messages that elicit negative emotions — or anything that reinforces an already negative image of a candidate — resonate for longer periods of time than positive messages, and may actually cause voters to do more research on the claims made in the ad. Positive ads made voters less likely to do further research.

So negative ads may have an impact. But how big? Probably not as big as the spending suggests.

Yet another study, this one from 2010 by Bowdoin College professor Michael Franz, says a 1,000-ad advantage can sway an electorate by a whopping half a percentage point. Clearly, that could make a difference in a close race. But the investment is clearly an unwise one if a candidate finds himself or herself down by more than the margin of error in polls.

Have we found a potential silver lining here? If the races don’t tighten too much in the next few weeks, the people behind the ads may decide not to buy the expensive airtime, meaning less annoying attack ads interrupting your regular annoying commercials.

Hmm … does it make someone a bad citizen to root for an uncompetitive race?

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