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Exploring the increase in negative political advertising since 2008

Political advertising crops up in the least – and most – expected places, and at this stage of the presidential election season, most people, like freshman McKinnley Witty, are simply tired of them.

“I think they’re annoying, I think that instead of focusing on what the other person’s doing wrong they should focus on what they’re doing right,” Witty said. “…I don’t think that they’re that necessary. Personally I don’t want to hear the bad things about them, I want to hear the good things that they’re going to do.”


Negative advertising is nothing new in a presidential election, but the 2012 season’s ads from candidates and interest groups increased from the 2008 election, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzed Kantar Media/CMAG data. By April 2008, 9.1 percent of ads put out by candidates and interest groups were negative, but in the 2012 election season so far, 70 percent have been negative.

As of Oct. 10, $262 million was spent on ads supporting Obama and $282 million went toward ads supporting Romney. Of all the ads run, 83 percent of ads supporting Obama were negative and 90 percent of ads supporting Romney were negative, according to a Huffington Post study.

Part of the increase is because of the 2010 Supreme Court decision (Citizens’ United vs. the Federal Election Commission) that allowed corporations, unions and other organizations to use as much money as they want to run ads independent of a campaign, according to associate professor of political science Sandra Davis.

Like many voters, ecology graduate student David Scott finds it difficult to take negative ads seriously because of the prevalence of mud-slinging, but recognizes them as a necessary evil.

“You can only say so much about yourself and be effective. I feel like politicians also need to give you a reason not to vote for the other guy,” Scott said. “So I see negative ads as sort of essential and inevitable, but I wish there was more balance between positive ads and negative ads.”

Negative ads disillusion and alienate voters, but many groups creating them can reinvent themselves each election season, making it difficult to hold them accountable for inaccurate or misleading campaign ads, according to Davis. Many disputed positions in political ads will never be resolved, and regulation is impossible because they are free speech protected by the First Amendment.

“It’s not a good situation, but other than amending the Constitution to directly define ads as non-speech, I don’t know of anything likely to happen that’s going to change this in the near future,” Davis said.

Witty encounters political ads on TV, YouTube and Pandora, and said that they are effective to a point because they interrupt an activity and force people to listen.

Although people dislike negative ads, they do have an influence, especially on those who do not take the time to inform themselves outside of watching a 30 second television spot. Negative ads are effective because people tend to remember them. Even so, negative ads are generally not the basis for voting against a candidate, Davis said.


Although advertising is a guaranteed method to reach an audience, Scott hopes that someday campaigns and interest groups will listen to voters and change their tactics.

“Just because negative ads have always worked in the past doesn’t mean there’s not some sea change coming,” Scott said.  “Maybe people will become less tolerant of negative ads in the future. And that would be great.”

Politics Beat Reporter Kate WInkle can be reached at

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