Written by Jess Campbell

Political attack ads have been used for decades during campaigns both here and abroad.  Given the general consensus of severe dislike for these outright mean candidate tools, do they really matter when it comes to voter turnout?

If  you’ve never seen what is arguably the most famous political attack ad, you can find it on YouTube (of course). Google ‘Daisy attack ad’ and you’ll be brought to a rather grainy video produced by former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political campaign of 1964. The film consists of a little girl, about 5 or 6 years old, counting the petals of a daisy as she pulls them from the stem. Once she runs out of petals to pull, what can only be described as a truly frightening male voice begins counting backwards, all while the camera shot has gone still and begins to zoom in on the little girl’s wide, terrified eyes.
And then…Boom. A mushroom cloud overwhelms the entire screen.

The point of this advertisement was very plain: (opponent) Barry Goldwater is a warmonger and if you vote for him, we’re all going to experience death by nukes.  For a 30 second ad that only aired once before being picked up as a major news event (essentially going viral before going viral was a thing), the effect is very haunting; so much so that major news outlets throughout the United States made it newsworthy in 2014, the year the ad turned 50.  CNN even went so far as to say the ad “changed the world of politics” within their headline featuring the video.

Could it have been this ad that spurred Johnson on to win the election and become the 36th President of the United States of America? Or did it even matter? It’s obvious that attack ads are nothing new. But what’s fascinating about them is whether they actually work. Some argue they don’t, that there’s no such thing as a ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ political ads. But surely, political campaigns wouldn’t spend billions of dollars on advertising that might not make a difference – or would they?

No one can forget the main message from each of the Conservative ads about Justin Trudeau that ran incessantly throughout the longest election campaign in our country’s history: “He’s just not ready.” Our friends to the south are in the thick of campaigning for the presidential election and are seeing all the attack ads that go along with being so close to Election Day this November. There are many questions surrounding the point of attack ads and the part they play in the success or failure of political campaigns. They’re funny, terrifying, and emotional – but do they really make a difference on Election Day?

Playing On Emotions

When examining the use of attack ads in past American presidential election campaigns, there are many that will swear by negative ads, saying simply that they work. In actuality there just isn’t enough evidence to suggest that’s true. In a July 2012 article for the Washington Post, author and University of Michigan political science professor Ted Brader says that “a review of more than 100 scientific studies found no conclusive difference between negative and positive ads, broadly defined, in their ability to win votes or affect turnout.” So why use them? One word: partisanship.

Feel-good ads that show things like the nation’s flag and children playing, and that have uplifting music in the background stir positive emotions within those who have committed to the party showing the ad, thereby strengthening partisanship. Likewise, attack ads that muster negative emotions via images like war, violence or drugs and have menacing music and voice-over trigger fear in the viewer and loosen the
partisan grip.

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Informing the Uninformed

Another idea concerning the use of political ads – this time positive or negative – is that they’re uninformed; that the information used in these ads has no valid purpose. But in fact, the opposite is true; if anything, ads increase a candidate’s name recognition and can actually teach voters new information. The key here is that these ads aren’t teaching something new to a voter who has already made up their mind about their vote. What they are doing is teaching (and therefore, being aimed at) voters who aren’t going to actively seek out that information for themselves in the first place. As Brader puts it in his article, “ads can narrow the gap between uninformed voters and political junkies” and provide “broad access to information that many voters would not otherwise get.”

Coming Back Around

Everyone has heard the phrase ‘what goes around, comes around.’ This same concept seems to also ring true for candidates who choose to utilize negative ads against their opponents. Generally, most voters will maintain that they dislike negative attack ads but will become especially disgusted if a candidate crosses a line (albeit imaginary) from a moral or ethical standpoint. For example, calling out a family member of an opposing candidate does not resonate well with voters. If this happens, the boomerang effect ensues: the negative ad ends up turning voters against the attacker, not the candidate being attacked. Case in point could be Stephen Harper’s use of the ISIS-Justin Trudeau attack ads that surfaced online during last year’s election campaign. The point was clear… if you vote for Trudeau instead of Harper, ISIS is going to blow your head off with an exploding wire; graphic, vulgar, untrue, and unyielding when it came to winning votes.

All things considered, it is difficult to warrant attack ads as “game changers” in political campaigns, whether here or south of our border. But regardless of their actual effect on voter turnout, it’s a safe bet to trust that these types of ads are here to stay, whether voters dislike them or not.