Why are political adverts so negative?

Benedict Pringle on ‘going negative’ and whether it could prove a decisive factor in #GE2015.

Whether it is in the UK or USA, most research suggests political adverts are largely only effective in reminding people about something that they already think.

If you’re trying to position a politician in a new way, or frame an issue in a different light, a political advertisement is not going to do much to shift public opinion.

People build their opinions on politicians and issues as birds build their nests – from little bits and pieces they pick up on their travels. Seeing an advert a few times is unlikely to change their minds immediately.

But, it might very well further cement an idea they’ve already had.

So, if your candidate is doing very well in the polls and the number of ‘undecided’ voters is small, a smart tactic would be to run lots of positive advertising. This would reassure your supporters that they’re on the ‘right side’, reaffirming the choice they’ve mentally already made and help compel them to turn out for you on the day.

These general principles work across the range of advertising channels and are equally applicable to the US and the UK. However, due to the British general electoral system, the game here is all about winning in marginal constituencies. Your strategy needs to be built around convincing the ‘undecided’ voters in around 100 target seats.

These ‘undecided’ people are by and large not interested in politics – they don’t read political sections of newspapers and haven’t ever watched Newsnight – but feel compelled by a deep sense of duty to vote on polling day.

When it comes to election time and a political party has to decide what sort of advert to run, when they have very limited resources, they think about one thing: what sort of advert is going to have the most immediate impact on the undecided population in the constituencies we care about.

Fortunately for the political strategists, there has been lots and lots of research on this topic and it basically says two things:

  1. People are more likely to believe something negative about a politician, than something positive. There’s almost nothing negative you can say about a politician that people aren’t willing to believe. People like dirty laundry – it’s why tabloids sell so well.
  2. People tend to remember negative things more easily than positive things. This trait seems to be a habit we gained through evolution to help us survive.

As a results of (1) and (2) a negative political advert has a more immediate impact on voter intention than a positive one.

So, the game is to find out what negative hunch undecided people already have about a politician or party and remind them of it in the most exciting and compelling way.

If people already think that Leader X is bad on the economy, then a poster reminding them of that fact will probably do quite well. If people think Party Y can’t be trusted to stick to their word, an advert accusing them of being deceptive will help shift the polls.

In 2001 people thought that William Hague was a weakling and in 2005 people thought that Michael Howard had a hidden agenda; Labour duly stuck the boot in to both leaders over and over again on those topics.

In 2010 the Tory’s biggest spend was on posters attacking Brown’s record; only 28% people thought he was doing a good job, so that was probably the right thing to do.

Miliband’s approval rating is currently at 18% (Nov 2014), so I would be surprised if the Tory’s don’t have a poster primed and ready to go attacking the Labour leader.

To conclude, political parties are so vitriolic about their opponents in their adverts because they don’t have the resources to run many and so the ones they are going to run need to work on the undecided population as immediately as possible.

For more of Benedict’s thoughts you can visit http://politicaladvertising.co.uk/ or follow him on twitter @benedictpringle