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Money, media coverage contribute to ‘negative’ campaigns

February 13, 2015

The closer a political campaign, the more likely it is that the candidates will attack each other with negative ads. This correlation has often been cited, and seems straightforward enough.

However, when Mitchell J. Lovett, associate professor of marketing at the Simon Business School, and collaborator Ron Shachar took a closer look at what actually motivates candidates to “go negative,” they discovered that two other factors are even more important than the closeness of the race. Specifically, negative ads increase as voters become more knowledgeable about the candidates — through the candidates’ own ads and through media coverage — and when candidates have larger amounts of money to spend.

Lovett and Shachar undertook their study, “Seeds of Negativity: Knowledge and Money,” because most research on negative advertising — in both politics and commerce — focuses on consumer (voter) reactions to it. They wanted to create a model to help explain why candidates choose to go negative — and also to account for the fact that hotly contested, “negative” campaigns also tend to have higher campaign spending and more media coverage, which increases voter knowledge of the candidates. These factors had been largely ignored in previous studies on the motivations for “going” negative.

Lovett and Shachar turned to psychology literature for some of the assumptions used in their model, specifically that “bad” information is processed more thoroughly than good, as embodied in a 2001 Review of General Psychology article entitled “Bad is Stronger than Good.” They also drew on research showing that people process negative and positive messages through “dual accounts” — much as they might compile a list of pros and cons. “Negative and positive messages don’t cancel in a one-to-one way,” Lovett noted, “and, after receiving enough messages, another negative message will likely influence you more than another positive message.”

Lovett and Shachar used data from all U.S. Congressional races in the top 75 Nielsen designated media areas in 2000, and all Congressional races in the top 100 such areas in 2002 and 2004. Included in this time frame was a Congressional vote that received considerable media attention, authorizing use of military force against Iraq.

“One of the nice things about studying political races is that there are lots of them,” Lovett noted. “Also, they’re held in similar settings. And they end. You have a clear winner and loser. You don’t often have that in commercial settings.”

Even so, he believes the model developed in this study could be useful in analyzing negative product advertising by commercial companies — especially among well-known, established competitors, and especially when there are economic downturns.

As Lovett and Shachar note in their study: “when the economy is not growing, the only way that a firm can grow is at the expense of its competitors. This means greater competition for the same consumers, and the parallel to political races is fairly immediate.”

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Category: Society & Culture