Negative political ads up 60 percent from 2014, but can engage, inform voters

Nov 6, 2018

By the time polls open Tuesday, most voters have seen or heard a lot of negative political ads. The number of negative ads in federal races is up 60 percent this year from the 2014 midterms, according to The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks broadcast political advertisements. But negative ads can have some useful features for voters.

Shana Gadarian, associate political science professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, said as campaigning begins, political ads tend to be positive and are a way to introduce people to a candidate.

“Positive ads are usually biographical, they tell you something about the background of the candidate, something about their family, something about their occupation," Gadarian said. "They have nice music under them. They’re in full color.”

The closer it gets to Election Day, especially in tight races, more negative ads are aired to contrast two campaigns. But Gadarian said negative ads can have more policy information than positive ones.

“You actually learn more from negative ads than you do from positive ads because they do tend to focus more on policy and votes,” Gadarian said.

At the bottom of some these ads are taglines where people can find out more information on a particular issue. 

“So, while people may not like the negativity and the tone of the ads, they actually have more policy information and they also tell you where you can learn more about the vote they’re being attacked on,” Gadarian said.

She said negative ads are a great way to get people to pay attention and engage in politics, if they are not following it during the year. And while negative ads can decrease the likeability of a candidate, she said that doesn’t necessarily mean they will change someone’s vote.