Going negative in campaign ads: Does it ever work?
Walking through the school hallways, I can hear teenagers talking about the latest episode of Glee, their grades on the English test they just got back, and the crazy man who showed up at their workplace. But there is no mention of politics.
Where, then, does the topic of politics fall - if at all - on their list of priorities when they are faced with a negative political ad?
At Central High School in Philadelphia, students aged 16 to 18 were asked for their opinion on negative political advertising. A negative ad focuses solely on the opponent's record or character - regardless of the accuracy of the information - rather than that of the candidate supporting the ad. Whether active or inactive in politics, the majority of students responded that although they watched or listened to ads grudgingly, there is a certain degree of influence.
With the Republican primaries and caucuses taking place in other states, there is a wave of negative ads attacking each candidate. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum - all of them have been the victim of nasty and controversial ads that took them for a ride on the roller-coaster of popularity.
Until the negative ads helped bash Gingrich to a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, he was a popular GOP candidate.
Ron Paul's "Serial Hypocrisy" attack ad deemed Gingrich a hypocrite for speaking about the "real question of policy, values, and seriousness." Considering that nearly half of all ads aired in Iowa were anti-Gingrich, it would seem the negative ads were pretty effective.
Negative ads at their core attempt to craft extreme images political rivals. Republicans slugging it out in the primaries could be a sign of an even more negative race in this fall's general election.
Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, stated that negative ads are aimed at lowering a candidate's popularity.
"We have to keep in mind that a negative ad does not help a candidate gain any votes; it only drives voters away from other candidates," Madonna said.
Madonna pointed out that the pressure then builds on the candidate in the ad because viewers expect a response in defense of his or her record and character.
Alice Hu, a member of Central's active nonpartisan club, Junior State of America (JSA), compared negative ads to regular commercials on television. Just like a commercial's main purpose is to attract viewers to a certain location or product, a negative ad's purpose is to sway viewers from certain candidates.
Other members of JSA were asked if negative ads had any impact on their ideology or vote. Bilal Khan, a junior taking an Advanced Placement U.S. history class, said that it depended on how much you follow the news; the more involved you are with politics, the less likely the chance to be influenced, and vice versa.
Eva Lau, also a junior, had a different opinion: "I don't think anyone would like to think that they are influenced by a negative ad," Lau said.
Outside of Central's political clubs, students differed when asked for their opinion on negative ads.
Kwame Traylor, a senior taking a social science class, said that it all depends on the content of the ad. "I'm more likely to change the channel if a positive ad comes on; negative ads are more interesting to watch," Kwame said.
Other students responded that negative ads did affect their views of a candidate because although the content is exaggerated, there is a kernel of truth somewhere.
Among the active and inactive students, there was one opinion that they all agreed on: Negative ads are extremely effective in a political campaign. They may present inaccurate information, but as Madonna said, negative ads are "sometimes not outright false; they're just misleading."
The students said that after watching a negative ad, they took a second look at both the targeted candidate and the one supporting the ad. All students, however, agreed with Madonna, who said that "[The ads] have to be perceived as fair and not below the belt."