Who’s to Blame for Political Attack Ads?

November 1, 2018

We all are. That’s the long and short of it.

Many Americans decry negative political advertising; most politicians dislike it as well.

But campaign strategists know negative ads work because they are powerful and memorable. They work for the same reason that we all love a little juicy gossip. Negativity gets into our brain quickly and stays there. Positive messages are just not as powerful or memorable.

We humans are much more influenced by bad than by good. Consider how we can forget 100 compliments but remember every single insult. We are wired to be very sensitive to negative stimuli. It may be a survival instinct. Our ancestors survived by processing negative or threatening information urgently in order to escape death by predators. Negativity – indeed, any threat to our well-being – gets our attention more quickly and easily. And we seem to store bad news in our brains for a longer time.

Negative ads help energize a candidate’s base and, if they are considered factual and relevant to the campaign, they can move undecided voters. In campaigns where the stakes are high, party enrollment is relatively equal, and the margin between candidates is believed to be thin, attack ads are likely because, well, the voters are human.