Negative ads may have spurred voter engagement

Éric Blais writes that the 2015 federal election campaign may provide further evidence that negative campaign ads do not negatively affect voter turnout.

Ad Hawk: The thinking that the more negative a campaign, the more people stay home may be changing

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters in Montreal early Tuesday after the Liberals won a majority government in the federal election. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Ad Hawk is an occasional series evaluating the effectiveness of political advertising.

  It turns out negative ads can be positive.

We heard much during this campaign about the Americanization of Canadian politics. About how U.S.-style attack ads have set the civility bar lower than ever. And about how all this nastiness stokes cynicism and ultimately undermines the electoral process.

Imagine if two leading brands fighting for market dominance accused the other of being unsafe. After a while, no one would trust either brand and the whole category would suffer. Negative ads would undermine consumers' trust in the advertisers and their brands. Many argue that the same happens to people's trust in politicians when negative ads are the norm and their more extreme version, attack ads, disgust voters. The electoral process becomes so ugly that more people want nothing to do with it.

Do negative ads depress voter turnout?

Scholars and political strategists have long believed that the more negative the campaign, the more people stay home on election day. But that thinking is changing.

While it's true that when attack ads are shown in focus groups, participants will often say that they are less likely to vote. However, several studies in the U.S. comparing turnout rates after campaigns with an onslaught of negative ads or just a few concluded there was no effect in turnout.

Campaign 2015 may provide further evidence that negative campaign ads do not negatively affect voter turnout. If the advance polls were any indication, eligible Canadian voters were highly engaged in the final weeks of this long campaign.

Preliminary Elections Canada figures state that 68.5 per cent of eligible voters — or 17,546,697 people — went to the polls. That's a jump of more than seven percentage points from the 2011 election when just 61.1 per cent of registered voters cast ballots. 

The Liberals will argue that their generally positive campaign and ability to tap into a strong desire for change drove higher participation rates. It certainly played a key role. However, negative ads can also have unintended positive consequences by driving people to go to the voting booth.

People generally pay more attention to negative ads

Some political scientists argue that negative ads can have a powerful mobilization effect. Because human beings are more motivated to avoid a negative than to seek a positive, they'll pay more attention.

  Negative ads also stir up the kind of emotions — fear, anger, anxiety — that stimulate attention and engagement. They motivate voters who dislike a candidate to vote and they energize supporters.

And when negative ads appear to be attacking a candidate with misinformation, engaged voters are compelled to do their homework and draw their own conclusions based on the facts they were able to research independently.

Negative ads are more likely to be about the real issues

Positive ads play a role and certainly make for a more pleasant campaign narrative but they are generally less likely to be about the real issues voters want to hear about. They are often inspirational, make voters like the candidate and offer general information about the policy platform. In contrast, negative ads deal with the hot issues people will debate around the dinner table. As such, they have the potential to fuel the discussion and engage people in the political process instead of undermining it.

  It could well be that the negative ads that drag us all into the gutter for weeks are actually good for democracy.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, Inc., a strategic consulting firm. He specializes in the Quebec market.

Previously from Éric Blais:


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