It is a matter of some irony that my first subtantive post of "Delightful Reflections" addresses something that is anything but--negative political advertising. Nevertheles, (1) irony can be a matter of delight and, (2) spreading a better understanding of this phenomenon may help lead the world toward a more constructive approach to political and other decision making.
Recently, private groups that are not officially associated with either the Bush and Kerry campaigns have run advertisements questioning the military service of their respective candidate's opponent. These ads have not been endorsed by the candidates or their committees, and the official campaigns have distanced themselves from, if not outright condemned, the ads. What is likely to be the effect of these campaigns, and what might various parties want to achieve?
First of all, with the polls tending to show that the candidates are so close that differences in percentages are within the margin of error, creating a small change in public opinion could have a large impact--especially in closely contested states. The question is, however, if these negative ads actually help the candidate running against the one being attacked or if they could actually backfire.
There is a considerable likelihood that these blatantly negative campaigns would backfire if they were, in fact, sponsored or even endorsed by a campaign. However, neither party can control the extremists within their ranks. It is not clear whether the campaigns are secretly happy with the ads or find them an annoying headache. The negative campaigns have received so much news coverage--perhaps more than the actual airtime of the advertisements--that those voters who follow the news may be aware of the separation from the campaign. Whether voters believe that the official campaigns have done enough to stop these ads is an empirical question.
The extremists groups may, in fact, not expect to impact the election much if at all. Instead, they may find it more important to get out their message with all its inherent rightiousness. The ads may be popular with fellow extremists, but these people's votes have almost certainly been determined anyway. The ad sponsors may, instead, be more interested in having their views heard. Some of these ads seem quite emotional.
In terms of impact, we would like to think that any effect would be negative. Yet, research findings suggest a less idealistic outcome. Although consumers view comparative advertising--which frequently makes negative statements about a competing roduct--very negatively, these when it comes to actual purchase behavior, comparative ads are, unfortunately, quite effective under some circumstances. There is also considerable evidence that shows that in making decisions, people tend to weight negative information much more heavily than positive information. In psychological jargon, negative information is viewed as being more "diagnostic."
Another possibility involves the phenomenon of the "sleeper effect." This is a controversial phenomenon that can be demonstrated in the laboratory, but it is less clear to what extent it occurs in the "real" world. (By the way, not to be cynical, but what's so real about the world out there, anyway?) Basically, what is hypothesized to happen is that people will see information from a low credibility source and will, when they first encounter it, soundly reject the information as being not credible or true. For example, one may read about a scandal or absurd "scientific" finding in the tabloids and know quite well at the time that the story is quite likely to be false. However, they theory goes, the memory of claim will tend to be more vivid than that of the source. Later on, then, people may be likely to remember the allegation but, without remembering the source, will be less able to dismiss it due to a low credibility source.
On a more basic level, the notion of classical condition suggests that negative affect may be associted with the candidate's name on a more unconscious level. Again, even if one does not believe the story, a negative association may persist.
A final possibility--albeit a rather spectulative one--is the possibility that the ads may help start rumors that take on a "life of their own." People may repeat at least part of the claims and may alter them to make them sound more credible or may add details to make them more vivid. Research on rumors is replete with cases where the "facts" of rumors change dramatically. By the way, Michael Kamins, Valerie Folkes, and I have done on rumors shows that people consider "word of mouth" to be more credible than "rumors."