Voting Romney? Your children are going to hate you.
That's the message of a bizarre, slightly creepy new ad launched last week by a group supporting the re-election of Barack Obama. In it, a children's chorus filmed in black and white sings about the dark future that would supposedly exist if Mitt Romney were to become president.
"Imagine an America where strip mines are fun and free, where gays can be fixed, and sick people just die, and oil fills the sea," the choir of forlorn-looking kids croons.
Political campaigns have never been shy about exploiting the threat to your children's future as an advertising tool. Most famously, Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" ad juxtaposed the image of an innocent little girl with the threat of nuclear war. It sparked controversy and has become a classic example for any examination of negative advertising in political campaigns.
Both campaigns are going negative, of course. For example, over the weekend the Romney campaign released a new spot attacking President Obama's approach to the auto industry, and suggesting that Chrysler, which received bailout money, is on the verge of shipping jobs to China. (On Monday the Obama campaign released another ad saying the claims about Chrysler were inaccurate. Chrysler has also clarified that its U.S. Jeep assembly lines – the focus in the ad -- will not be cut back.)
Viewers on YouTube weren't crazy about the children video: it garnered 4,2999 dislikes and only 298 likes.
But the question of whether negative ads work may have more to do with their frequency than the attack strategy itself, according to a new study from the University of Miami. Professor Juliana Fernandes found that negative ads are more likely to have their intended effect when they are "shown in moderation" – bombard the airwaves too much with an attack ad, and a campaign is more likely to see a backlash.
"Negative political ads do work under certain conditions," Prof. Fernandes said in a statement. "…A candidate that doesn't have a large budget for political advertising can use the same advertising over and over again; but in a way that is more strategic."
The study asked 150 university students to watch a 30-second commercial for political candidates they likely did not know. One group was shown the ad once, another saw it three times, and a third group saw it five times. The findings, to be published in March in the journal Mass Communication and Society, showed that the group that watched three times was most likely to vote for the candidate sponsoring the ad; but more viewings did not make for better chances. The group forced to watch the ad five times were least likely to vote for that candidate.
Another study, with 306 students, measured the impact of showing ads during a half-hour TV show, with different spaces of time between the ads. A survey afterwards showed that participants were more likely to indicate they would vote for the candidate sponsoring the ad if more time was left between repeat viewings. Even when they were forced to see the ad repeatedly, as long as it was not shown too close to the last viewing, that positive sentiment remained. That suggests political campaigns need to pay attention to not just the frequency, but the spacing of their ads when they run.
The current campaign has stood out for its extreme negativity in advertising. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, an academic study that tracks national political advertising, since the beginning of October only 11 per cent of ads sponsored by the Romney campaign were positive, and the Obama campaign had only 6.3 per cent purely positive ads.
The study is particularly timely given that the frequency of political ads has dramatically increased this election cycle. More than 915,000 presidential ads have run on cable and broadcast television nationally in the U.S. since June 1, according to the Wesleyan project. That is up significantly: a 44.5 per cent increase from 637,000 ads in the same period in 2008.