By: Dianne Heath
When Campaign Ads Attack
Your stomach is violently growling, your face is aching from the tension and your mind is flooding with doubts. “I should have chosen answer ‘b’. Answer ‘c’ was probably a trap.” *sigh* Yes, it’s been a long day of classes with every exam and quiz mimicking the intensity of a boot camp obstacle course.
“Quick! I need a cat video before my brain explodes. Time to tune into YouTube,” you tell yourself. You slowly relax and comfort yourself with the thought of cute cats. The first cat video is cuddly enough to start the recovery. “I might as well look at the next video. I can’t watch just one.” Suddenly you hear the archetypal eerie music grow louder in the background. This is definitely not your typical ad convincing you that you need to shop at ModCloth. The voice over sounds critical & inflammatory, there are combative statements, sound bites that make you cringe, misconstrued quotes, blatant scare tactics and promises of apocalyptic doom if you vote for the other candidate. Now there’s a haunting black and white screen shot of the opposing candidate laughing. He probably was heartily laughing at a funny joke. But the ad positions the laugh after exposing an unpopular statement from the candidate and of course it’s altered to look as unflattering as possible. A jovial moment turned evil. Yes, of course, it’s the all too familiar negative campaign ad. It’s emotional, it’s predictable and it could be on your favorite YouTube video attacking when you least expect it.
Choose your Own EndingAccording to political behavioral studies, you’ll either:
A. Be on the edge of your seat. Usually you ignore politics but you can’t ignore the fact that the opposing candidate supports the war. The startling sound bite about cutting Pell Grants has you livid. “How will you ever survive college without Pell Grants?!?! My textbooks are $600 for just one semester!!!” you question in outrage. Relaxing is now impossible as your hearts races. You become anxious with the thoughts of getting a second job while going to college full time. “Who does this candidate think he is? He’s not here to comfort my friend who suffering from PTSD after fighting in Iraq.” You realize that your future and the future of families across America are at stake. In just one clip you’ve become more aware about the issues. “I don’t think I’m even registered to vote,” you mention to yourself in a panic. In a state of urgency you resolve to register first thing in the morning.
This ad has motivated you to make sure that the opposing candidate doesn’t win. Since you’re on YouTube, you decide to check out the videos of the candidate that promises to not to cut Pell Grants. “Hey, this guy is pretty cool. Too bad I don’t have any money to donate.” You sign up to volunteer for his campaign instead.
B. Reject the campaign ads. You have deadlines on top of deadlines. You’re already feeling stressed and you refuse to allow a politician to get you frazzled about his struggle for power. The political ads fill you with disgust. Some of the statements are so ridiculous and revolting that you actually chuckle. “Just great! The regular ads are already annoying. Now I have to deal with campaign ads attacking each other!” You click on another video and now there’s another campaign ad attacking the other candidate. You think to yourself, “If these ads are true, then I don’t want to vote for either candidate.” From what you recall from the news, neither of them had a strong enough argument for the presidency. Their lack of strong arguments was just as disappointing as the negative campaign ads.
You grow cynical and even more apathetic. You thought were going to vote but you quietly decide to just stay away from the polls altogether. The attack ads are so vicious, overtly dishonest that they confirm your suspicions that both of the candidates don’t have a positive record or enough qualifications for the presidency. All of the positive media attention about the candidates means nothing to you now. You click out of YouTube. “I should be studying any way.”
C. Overlook and/or miss the ad. You saw that a political ad was about to play. You hate ads in general and you already know who you’ll vote for. This ad won’t change your political behavior. “Campaign ads aren’t the best source of information for politics,” you note to yourself, “they are so over the top, I don’t know how anyone can take them seriously.” You use this time to hurry up and fix a snack so that you can watch those cat videos in style.
You come back after the ad is over and after a series of videos and post the most adorable one your Facebook page. Now you may have inadvertently shared a political message even though the ad didn’t reach you. Your friends, family and associates may face the same dilemma. I wonder what ending they’ll choose.
The implications and effects of Negative Campaign Ads on YouTube
Although YouTube is a media source, the consumption of YouTube in comparison to other traditional media outlets such as television and radio is different since it’s social. Therefore I believe that political scientists should take a deeper look into what happens when negative campaign ads invade YouTube. Until that happens, I want to take this time to briefly outline some pros and cons of this phenomenon.
1. YouTube becomes an online Town hall- Social media is more interactive and immediate than traditional media. Instead of passively watching political pundits spar with each other on TV, you can read comments on YouTube or watch citizen YouTube videos expose corruption, reveal holes in political platforms, criticize past political blunders and harshly dissect the views of political parties. It’s like a social marketplace where you can shop for political ideas to adopt. You can also go a step further and offer your commentary or post a video to get feedback from citizens like you. YouTube allows the average citizen to stay engaged in politics. "The technology now has made it a lot easier for everyday people to participate. It's made it easier for campaigns, too. The technology allows us to build a platform and see if people come," said Genachowski.
2. Candidates have less incentive to only appeal to PACs, corporations and individuals with large budgets thereby diversifying who influences government – In the past you needed an astronomical budget in order to indirectly get the people on your side. This required gaining the support of wealthy citizens that could contribute to your fundraisers. Even though candidates since need a large campaigning budget, with YouTube there’s more of incentive to directly appeal and cater to the people. YouTube is expansive and videos have the potential to go viral reaching millions. If your ads are embedded in these video your message can spread almost as rapidly as television. In the same way the small donations added up to $500 million, the bits of attention to the ads can result in a landslide victory.
1. Personable nature of YouTube exploited by the candidates - People feel more connected to social media because it’s free media that the general public largely contributes to. Many people distrust traditional media and have grown to trust YouTube. Negative campaigns ads take advantage of this close connection and the comfort that people associate with YouTube. Positive feelings about YouTube that were built overtime may undeservedly transfer to the negative campaign ads. It would be the equivalent of a neighbor candy store suddenly taking advantage of the relationships that they’ve developed over time by broadcasting propaganda. You go to the trusted store mentally disarmed just to be inuaded with negativity.
2. Negative campaign ads on YouTube target a younger audience that is more susceptible to political manipulation- By targeting younger audiences with negative campaign ads, they are attempting to encourage young people to develop a strong aversion to the opposing political campaign. They also hope to garner party loyalty for the duration of their life. Young people are also an attractive demographic because they have more time to volunteer in campaigns. Their naiveté shields them from understanding the sly methods politicians use to shape messages for serving their own purposes.
Unfortunately young people don’t have as much emotional defenses and political savvy to reject this manipulation. It’s also harder for young people to decipher between the honest and dishonest messages. Young people are more vulnerable to political candidates because they are taught to view adults, especially powerful adults, as authority figures. With campaigns ads taking over YouTube, it’s difficult to process a logical view about politics as a child.
Negative campaign ads will affect everyone differently depending on their personality, childhood socialization, culture, age, etc. Therefore it’s difficult to determine whether it’s a mostly positive or negative occurrence. What we do know is that campaign ads feed the need to gossip. Many people are more afraid of loss, therefore those citizens will gravitate to learning about the negativity to protect themselves from harm. Therefore, negative campaigning will always have a place in politics. It’s interesting to see how negative campaigning differs depending on the media sources and time period.
- Obama Raised Half a Billion Online, The Washington Post
- Political Information Efficacy and Internet Effects in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, American Behavioral Scientist
- A Worldwide Presidential Election: The Impact of the Media on Candidate and Campaign Evaluation, Public Opinion Research
- Negative Campaign Advertising: Demobilizer or Mobilizer?, The American Political Science Review
- Measuring Media Exposure and the Effects of Negative Campaign Ads, American Journal of Political Science