Negative ads on average are more informative than positive ones.
It's that time again. With the mud flying in the presidential race, pundits, journalists and political observers of all stripes are denouncing the campaign's new, strikingly negative tone.
Listening to them, you'd think that the very fabric of our democracy were being ripped apart every time a candidate aired a tough attack ad, threw an elbow, or issued a sharply worded statement. It's no surprise that the public has joined the chorus to denounce negativity in politics.
But as someone who has spent years studying negative advertising, I say hold the hand-wringing over attack ads. They're actually pretty good for the country. Before you throw down the paper in disgust, let me offer, as Sen. John McCain likes to say, some "straight talk."
Most people assume that negativity in politics is a bad thing. But they're wrong. Attack ads aren't just inevitable; they're actually helpful to voters. Negative ads, on average, are actually more informative than positive ones.
I've examined all the ads aired by presidential candidates on television from 1960 to 2004, and my analysis has led me to some startling conclusions:
First, negative ads are more likely than positive ads to be about the issues. Second, negative ads are more likely to be specific when talking about those issues. Third, negative ads are more likely to contain facts. And finally, negative ads are more likely to be about the important issues of the day.
How can something so widely reviled actually turn out to be good for us? It's like finding out that Big Macs are nutritious.
We rarely consider what's necessary for a negative ad to work. Sen. Barack Obama can't just say that a McCain presidency would be bad for the economy. Instead, he must make an argument, even a 30-second one, showing how Senator McCain's policies will supposedly lead to an economic downturn. That forces Senator Obama to be much more specific than he is when he's out on the stump.