Suzanne Lindgren

Why do campaigns go negative?

The question was the subject of a recent inquiry by WCCO-CBS television news.

As I recall it was a Sunday morning and Matthew had turned on the TV. I wasn’t paying much attention until the anchors said viewers had been emailing to complain about all the negative ads. 

I can relate. Not that we get many negative political ads here at the paper. But letters to the editor have certainly crept into that territory. (The Messenger gets fewer such letters than the Sun, and usually not prompted by elections at all.) The fallout is similar: me on the phone or email explaining how such letters find their way into the paper. 

The truth is, although it’s not my place to withhold nasty opinion letters, I strongly dislike publishing them and wish the authors would show more maturity.

But back to the ‘CCO segment.

Given the division between advertising and the newsroom, there wasn’t much the anchors or reporters could do to stop the ads from running. But they did what they could and put a story together. 

They uncovered something I found interesting and am trying to keep in mind during this political season. Negative attack ads are more likely to surface in a close race. The candidate likely feels they have already emphasized the positive and it’s not enough to win.

“Do negative ads work?” reporter Heather Brown asked Matthew Motta, who researches campaign advertising and its effects.

“It depends on what you mean by work,” he said. Turns out negative ads don’t change many people’s opinions. But they are memorable.

“Negative ads are far more likely to talk about the issues,” Motta said. “They’re far more likely to cite sources.”

“We say we don’t like negative ads,” Brown noted. “But researchers have found people think they give them more information.”

Such ads might move election results only one or two percentage points. But in a close race that could be enough to win.

The notion that it works at all puts the subject of negative advertising in a tough spot. If the race is close and your opponent has gone negative, there’s a real chance you could lose if you don’t return the gesture.

Here’s where comparing the letters section to advertising breaks down. With a campaign it’s a strategic decision. With letter writers it’s just an individual who, it seems, has momentarily forgotten the necessity of kindness.

I like a good debate as much as the next gal. Constructive disagreement toward a solution is healthy. Unsubstantiated attacks on intellect or character are not. 

A word to the wise: These attacks can backfire.

As the campaign ad researcher told the WCCO reporter, “There’s actually some evidence […] that negative ads can mobilize people to go to the polls, presumably in defense of their preferred candidate.”

I’d say there’s a good chance the same goes for those letters.

I welcome your response to this editorial column:

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