Does “Going Negative” Work?

Now with Super Tuesday behind us, the world will soon know who will compete in November for the highest office in the land. Amid all the sound bites, the hand-wringing, and the mud-slinging, it seems a fitting time to raise the question: does “going negative” really work? By “going negative” I mean the practice of negative messaging to advance one’s cause. Sure it can make headlines and attract attention, but does it actually move people to action?
Many journalists and researchers have attempted to answer this question. The results are a mixed bag. Back in August, NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben provided a helpful synthesis of existing research on the topic. Here are some key takeaways:
  • A 2012 study found that while advertising messages had a measurable effect on voter attitudes, that effect was small and short-lived, disappearing within a week.
  • Another study found that negative advertising had some tangible effects on voting in the 2008 election, but it also found that a candidate needs a lot more advertisements than their opponent to make an impact – and a small one at that.
  • And a 2007 study suggested those negative advertisements don’t really work at all.
This is certainly not the first time negativity has taken over the campaign trail—though it may be the worst case to date. Watching this process unfold has cemented one core value that we’ve long believed in: authenticity, not negativity, rules in persuasion.
That said, the issue that Erica Siefert points out so clearly in her book The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns, is that in the absence of authenticity, negativity often fills the void—for better or worse.
Doyle McManus at the Los Angeles Times recently asked, “Will one of these candidates convince voters—amid all the noise and artifice of politics—that they are real people underneath, with character and convictions?”
If nothing else, perhaps this 2016 campaign cycle will remind us that there are a lot of ways to deliver a message, whether we like them all or not. But, when you can deliver that message in a way that shows you’re authentically connected to your audience and the issue, you’ve got the best chance at making it stick.

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