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ASU professors 'take aim' at attack advertising

Fridkin and Kenney Taking Aim at Attack Advertising

President Lyndon B. Johnson famously used an attack ad, known as "Daisy," in the 1964 presidential election.

May 15, 2019

Ad spending broke records during the 2018 midterm elections, with placements ranging from local TV to Facebook.

Each election cycle brings with it countless campaign advertisements — many of which are of the negative variety. Negative ads within U.S. elections have become an integral part of a candidate’s campaign strategy. It is less clear how this type of communication is impacting voters’ attitudes and actions.

Arizona State University Foundation Professors Kim Fridkin and Patrick Kenney’s new book “Taking Aim at Attack Advertising: Understanding the Impact of Negative Campaigning in U.S. Senate Races” aims to look at this topic by drawing from surveys, experiments, facial expression analysis, content analyses and focus groups.

Fridkin, who is part of ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, spoke to ASU Now about why it is increasingly important to understand how attack advertising works and what to expect as we head into the 2020 elections:

Question: Why do you think it is important to understand how negative advertising influences voters' attitudes and actions in today’s political climate?

Answer: Understanding the impact of negative advertising in today’s political climate is essential given the massive amount of money spent on negative commercials during campaigns by candidates, by political parties and by third-party groups.

Q: The book draws from various forms of data and analyses that were conducted around U.S. senatorial campaigns, including facial expression analysis. How did you gather this data?

A: We gathered survey and survey experimental data with two large nationwide samples. We supplemented that data with survey and experimental data collected with the help of the ASU student subject pool as well as the School of Politics and Global Studies Experimental Laboratory.

Q: What is the "tolerance and tactics theory of negativity" and why is it integral to understanding attack advertising?

A: The “tolerance and tactics theory of negativity” suggests that we need to consider people’s tolerance for negativity as well as the type of negativity. In particular, we find that people who are least tolerant of negativity (e.g., dislike it the most) are more influenced by negative advertising. In addition, we find that negative advertising that focuses on important topics, but is delivered in a strident and harsh fashion, is most effective in changing people’s views regarding the attacked candidate.

Q: What are some lessons to be taken from this book as we head into the electoral campaigns of 2020?

A: We find that certain types of negativity can influence people’s views of the candidates for certain segments of the electorate. However, we also find that people who are least tolerant of negativity may be more likely to be demobilized by negative advertising that is highly uncivil and focused on issues tangential to governing. As we head into 2020, it is important to make sure that campaigns are not trying to systematically alienate certain types of voters by engaging in mudslinging, e.g., creating and airing negative ads embracing a discourteous tone and focusing on irrelevant topics.

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