Americans Skeptical About Political Ads (But They Work)

A new Gallup poll shows that “Americans are highly skeptical of what they see in ads for political candidates, and describe most of the ads they have seen as negative. Americans living in states with competitive 2006 statewide elections are more likely to rate the ads they have seen as negative than are those living in states without hotly contested elections.”

These attitudes are perhaps explainable but the fact that most ads are intellectually dishonest and negative, especially in competitive races. Negative ads are simply much more effective than positive ones, despite the public’s longstanding stated hatred of them. And it’s rather axiomatic that there will be more negative ads in tight races.

The interesting thing is that, while people claim overwhelmingly not to trust the ads . . .

Americans believe very little, if anything, of “what is said in commercials for or against political candidates.” Sixty-nine percent say they do not believe much (49%) or anything (20%) they see in political ads. Only 5% say they believe all or almost all of what is said, while an additional 23% believe a fair amount of the content.

Poll Americans Skeptical About What They See in Political Ads (general)

. . . they nonetheless work. Well done negative ads are almost universally devastating.

The same appears to be true of the attack ads run by independent groups:

Independent issue-advocacy groups are new players in the political ad game. These groups are not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Parties, or with specific candidates, but do run commercials in favor of or against one of the candidates. The most famous example is the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” group, which launched a series of ads in 2004 questioning accounts of John Kerry’s reported heroism in the Vietnam War.

Poll Americans Skeptical About What They See in Political Ads (ad type)

Yet there’s little doubt that the Swift Boat ads were effective in diminishing the advantage Kerry gained from being a Vietnam war hero.

I haven’t seen polling (and am not interested enough to spend a lot of time looking for any) but I suspect one would find similar results with product advertising. Aside from the occasional truly clever television ad, most of us say we distrust commercials and are not influenced by them. Yet, Madison Avenue continues to spend billions of dollars a year making and showing them. Despite our professed skepticism, we’re incredibly susceptible to advertising.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Yet there’s little doubt that the Swift Boat ads were effective in diminishing the advantage Kerry gained from being a Vietnam war hero.

    I have my doubts. I think Kerry’s reaction, or lack thereof, hurt him much more than the ads themselves, at least among the voters whose minds weren’t already made up.

    Dems get tagged as pusillanimous, and Kerry played right into it.

  2. Christopher says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  3. Christopher says:

    Way to go, James. Delete posts that are critical of you. “in violation of site policies” is the reason you give to delete my post? You can do better than that, can’t you???

    When “bloggers” like OTB turn into censors straight out of Soviet Russia, times are sure a changin’.

  4. J.R. Ford says:

    That is probably why he gets so few comments. Well, that and he’s so gullible. Huh, Kerry a war hero. Kerry still hasn’t squared why his “honorable” discharge was dated after Carter signed the amnesty bill, years after he would have gotten a real one.

  5. Michael says:

    Way to go, James. Delete posts that are critical of you.

    I’ve seen many comments critical of James. I’ve posted my fair share to be sure. Yours was probably deleted more for content than opinion I would imagine. Unless of course your opinions truly are that badly formed, which I can’t discount either.

  6. Pug says:

    Kerry won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. How many medals did the United States Navy award you, J.R. Ford? The Army? The Marines?

    Bet I already know the answer to that one.