March 29, 2020

Boomerang effect of negative ads

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, it has been said, although that probably won’t happen without a proper advertising campaign to promote sales. The principle also applies to politics, the more so in this technologically advanced communications age.

Run for public office and make good use of the multiple media outlets to advertise your many redeeming qualities, and, theoretically, come Election Day your presumed constituents will beat a path to the polls. With any luck, they’ll vote for you instead of the hopeless mediocrity running against you, although of that you will never be sure.

In an earlier day, political advertising tended to be generally positive – a listing of the candidate’s qualifications and maybe his or her position on an issue currently bugging the electorate. If an opponent was mentioned, it was always as “my opponent,” and usually only in passing. Gradually, as the election process devolved into the aggravatingly long campaign-by-television-advertising such as we have before us at the moment, the ads took on a more negative tone toward the opposition. Presumably under the theory that you might as well say it as think it – especially if it might pick up a few more votes – many candidates had no compunction about labeling their opponents, in effect, palpable frauds and assigning to them all manner of blame for society’s malfunctions.

Polls show that most Americans deplore negative advertising. Academic researchers tend to look at it as effective because the message itself is remembered, but ineffective because the candidate sponsoring the ad is harmed, according to a study found on the Internet.

Political consultants, however, insist that negative advertising is effective, and that’s why they advise clients to use it. Voters are more apt to vote against something than for something, they reason, so negative advertising works in most political campaigns. And anyway, once the election is over any negative grass-roots vibes quickly vanish.

As for viewers of negative television ads, many feel negative toward the sponsor, the University of Missouri study showed. Researchers have found no difference in gender when it comes to evaluating the ad’s basic message, but women generally are more negative toward the sponsor than are men. Older voters disapprove of negative advertising more than younger voters do, and lower-income voters are more apt to tolerate negative advertising than are those with a higher income.

Viewers with contrarian streaks tend to see negative political advertising as an infringement upon their right to decide for themselves, according to research. Such perception may result in “reactance,” which is described as “a boomerang effect in which the individual reacts in a manner opposite to the persuader’s intentions…”

Ah, yes, the dreaded boomerang effect. Mainers may soon know if there is anything to the theory, the five-person gubernatorial race to be decided in a couple of weeks being our guinea pig for the experiment. Or, more specifically, that part of the race involving the incumbent Democrat, John Baldacci, and his Republican challenger, Chandler Woodcock.

The mother of the current crop of Maine negative political ads has been running on Maine television stations. It appears to blame Woodcock for a number of major woes facing Maine today, which is not so shocking under the new rules of engagement, I suppose.

But the thing that likely seems odd to most anyone paying even scant attention to the spot, I should think, is it doesn’t once suggest that viewers should elect a person other than Woodcock. Considering the man’s alleged shortcomings that have just been cited, that is puzzling. The first time I saw this ad I said to myself, “What is wrong with this picture?” I kept waiting for the kicker urging me to vote for someone. Anyone. But it never came.

I am told by those in the know that the reason the ad contains no pitch to re-elect Gov. Baldacci may lie in election campaign rules and concern the triggering of matching funds for the publicly funded candidates in the race, of which Woodcock is one.

I suppose advocates of negative advertising might tell me that if the ad has the electorate talking to itself, for whatever reason, it has done its job marvelously. Time will tell. But, considering the contrariness of Maine voters, if ever a negative political ad had the potential to boomerang on the sponsors and popularize the phrase “voter reactance” in our political lingo, this would seem to be the one.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is

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