Political Advertising in the 1990S: Expected Strategies, Voter Responses, and Public Policy Implications

ABSTRACT - This paper examines current and predicted advertising practices of political campaign strategists as well as potential voter responses. Both the trade and academic literatures in advertising suggest that negative advertisements, while generally ineffective, will continue to be used widely in national and local elections in the 1990s. Public policy directions are discussed, and future research necessary to provide appropriate guidance in the development of such policy is suggested.


Ronald Paul Hill (1991) ,"Political Advertising in the 1990S: Expected Strategies, Voter Responses, and Public Policy Implications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 715-719.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 715-719


Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University


This paper examines current and predicted advertising practices of political campaign strategists as well as potential voter responses. Both the trade and academic literatures in advertising suggest that negative advertisements, while generally ineffective, will continue to be used widely in national and local elections in the 1990s. Public policy directions are discussed, and future research necessary to provide appropriate guidance in the development of such policy is suggested.


During the first debate of the 1988 presidential election, Michael Dukakis and George Bush were asked by representatives of the media to discuss important national issues such as abortion, drug abuse, and the growing federal deficit. However, ensuing media attention to these matters faded quickly, and was replaced with a concentration on the advertising tactics and strategies of the candidates (Colford 1988). Most of this attention focused upon the use of negative advertising in an attempt to degrade the opponent. For example, Dukakis used four advertisements titled "The Packaging of George Bush," that show Bush's "image-makers" in a conference setting searching for ways to gloss over their candidate's liabilities. These media advisors go back and forth looking for the right "sales" gimmick, and their-conversation "reeks of contempt for voters and cynicism over the electoral process" (Garfield 1988, p. 76). In a consistent fashion, Bush utilized a number of different negative ads that focus on the past policies of his opponent. One ad, titled "The Dukakis Furlough Program," suggests that Dukakis pursues a liberal policy towards criminals in his state that has led to increased violent crimes such as rape and murder. Kathleen Jamieson (1988), author of Packaging the President, sums up this situation:

Never before in a presidential campaign have television ads sponsored by a major party candidate lied so blatantly as in the campaign of '88 (p. C1).

This approach was not limited to the presidential contest in 1988. For example, in a New Jersey senate race, the Democratic incumbent and the Republican challenger denigrated each other for months with negative television commercials, spending a record $16 million (Joseph Sullivan 1988). Also, in a Florida senate race, the Republican incumbent scorned his Democratic opponent with a barrage of 10-second TV ads that conclude, "Hey Buddy, you're liberal!" (Rosenbaum 1988). However, the "archetypal" negative political ad comes from the 1988 Israeli elections (Brinkley 1988). One (of many) television advertisements showed the Labor Party leader as a friend and ally of Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Included in this ad is an old film clip revealing a grinning Mr. Arafat pointing a rifle and saying, 'Through this barrel, we can get everything we want."

What conditions in the political campaign environment have led to such a reliance on these tactics? Is this approach to political advertising expected to continue? How do voters respond to the use of negative ads? What responses can we expect in the future? Furthermore, given the current and future tactics as well as voter responses, what are the public policy implications? These questions will be addressed in the following sections, and research opportunities will be delineated.


The use of negative ads during the 1988 elections was anticipated by members of the advertising profession. For example, during a 1987 Advertising Age roundtable, five leading political consultants for both Democrats and Republicans predicted that use of this practice would increase from the 1986 campaigns where $190 million was spent predominately "on 30-second, mainly negative, mainly corrosive, mainly disruptive, television commercials" (Honomichl 1988, p. 3). Further, George Will (1988) speculated that the preferred style of political campaigns - "going negative" - would dominate the media during the 1988 elections. Why have campaign consultants and politicians relied so heavily on such tactics? In a humorous way, George Will (1988) provides three reasons for the continued use of negative advertising:

(1) The other guy started it.

(2) I'm not being negative, I'm just alerting the electorate to my loathsome opponent's squalid record.

(3) Negative campaigning is as American as apple pie - and, by the way, did I mention that my opponent hates apple pie? (p. 66).

Regardless, widespread usage of negative ads in recent political campaigns has been due to the perception that they influence voters (Axelrod 1988). Furthermore, advertisers speculated that the failure of both presidential candidates in the 1988 election to outline their positions on important issues led to the proliferation of negative advertisements (Horton and Chase 1988). Former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, who ran unsuccessfully for president in the Democratic primaries, agreed and stated that:

The negative tenor is caused by the absence of thematics, the absence of issues. It [advertising] fills the vacuum created by the candidates' tacit agreement not to discuss the issues (p. 66).

Therefore, instead of clearly establishing his position, each candidate tried to cast his opponent's views on these issues in an unfavorable light. This set of circumstances may have been the case for many of the 1988 political election races, leading to similar approaches (Hill 1989).

In general, these tactics have disturbed advertisers, and caused the American Association of Advertising Agencies to monitor political ads during the 1984 elections (Stiansen 1984). Nevertheless, the 1988 campaigns received even worse reviews by the advertising community. Executives attending the American Association of Advertising Agencies' western region conference characterized these campaigns with adjectives such as "cutthroat" and "huckstering" (Horton and Chase 1988). Further, Bob Garfield, in his weekly Advertising Age column, was critical of the negative ads of the Dukakis campaign and stated that:

If the presidential election hinges on advertising - and, my friends, I believe it does - Michael Dukakis, a man of substance and vision, will be the next governor of Massachusetts.

However, while generally opposed to such an approach, many advertising strategists suggest that negative advertisements may be effective if used judiciously and/or if certain conditions exist. According to Axelrod (1988):

... negative advertising has its dangers. Like radiation therapy, the right amount of negative advertising can prove very effective. A few rads over the line, however, and attack ads can sometimes prove fatal to the candidate who engages in them (p. 88).

Further, consider the situation where a lesser known opponent is challenging a better known incumbent. Given this condition, a negative approach may be an effective challenger strategy if it is focused on a weakness of the incumbent that is widely believed by the electorate (Honomichl 1988). On the other hand, it may be an effective incumbent (or leader) strategy when the opponent is a relatively unknown quantity. Here, negative information is provided by the leader in an attempt to get voters to base their early (and often lasting) impressions of the opposition on negative information (see Taylor 1989).

Many political consultants speculate that negative advertisements will be used with even greater frequency in the 1990s. There are several reasons for this prediction. First, the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) has yet to take disciplinary action against a single member for violation of its Code of Ethics, which forbids members to intentionally disseminate "false or misleading information" and/or to indulge "in any activity which corrupts or degrades the practice of political campaigning" (Broder 1989a, p. A22). Second, the media relies heavily upon consultants to provide newsworthy information on campaigns, and this "symbiotic relationship" may reduce the ability of the press to objectively and critically evaluate political advertising tactics (Broader 1989b). Finally, and (perhaps) most importantly, many candidates and their consultants believe that they are faced with the "prisoner's dilemma." Democratic pollster Paul Maslin stated:

"The techniques have gotten so refined, the weapons so powerful, that if you don't use them, you will lose them, because the other side will use them on you" (Taylor 1989, p. A14).


In contrast to current and (predicted) future practice in political campaigning, there is evidence that suggests negative advertising may not be effective. For example, in 1986, Republicans outspent Democrats in 23 of 34 senate races, concentrating most of the $122 million spent on negative television advertisements (Will 1988). Nonetheless, the Democrats won 20 of the 34 senate seats. Some industry experts believe that these outcomes demonstrate that voters view negative ads critically, and subsequently become cynical about the entire political process (Grove 1989; Honomichl 1988; Taylor 1989).

Few would disagree that American voters tend to deplore politics and politicians. However, the 1988 races produced more negative feelings than previous elections (Oreskes 1988). According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, a sense of skepticism or cynicism was prevalent among voters prior to the 1988 elections, with nearly 6 out of 10 members of the electorate wishing they had other choices (Hume and Jaroslovsky 1988). Further, only 50.16% of eligible voters went to the polls, the lowest percentage since 1924 and lower than any other industrial democracy (Berke 1988; Taylor 1989).

In order to investigate reactions to political ads, Hill (1989) exposed potential voters in the 1988 presidential election to one of three types of advertisement for either the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate, and subsequently asked them to respond with written protocols and to complete attitude toward the ad (Aad) measures. These three types of ad were labeled "sponsor-positive," "opponent-negative," and "comparative.' Based on the work of Merritt (1984), they are defined as follows: Sponsor-positive (or competitive) ads describe positive attributes of the sponsor and implicitly suggest an absence of these attributes in the competitor. Opponent-negative ads (the classic "negative" political advertisement) and comparative ads are both variants of the same approach. Both name or identify the competitor; however, comparative advertising identifies a competitor for the purpose of claiming superiority while opponent-negative ads identify a competitor for the purpose of imputing inferiority (see Prasad 1976). Further, unlike comparative advertisements, opponent-negative ads do not mention the sponsoring candidate's attributes, and, therefore, intend to move voters away from the opponent rather than towards the sponsor (see Colford 1987; Honomichl 1988).

Results from this investigation show that voters' overall reactions as well as their reactions toward the ad sponsor are more positive for sponsor-positive than for comparative or opponent-negative political advertisements. Further, these responses do not vary significantly between comparative and opponent-negative ads, and responses directed toward the opponent of the ad sponsor remain constant across all three types of advertisement. Interestingly, only one of these mean response measures is positive, suggesting that the widespread voter disenchantment with the 1988 presidential campaign may have been captured by this study.

The measures of Aad, however, produced different results. These data indicate that voters have more favorable Aad for comparative and opponent-negative than for sponsor-positive political advertisements (no differences were found between the comparative and opponent-negative ads). According to Hill (] 989), one possible interpretation of the seeming inconsistency between the reactions to the ad sponsor and the ads themselves is that the negative tenor of these ads is compatible with voters' perceptions of this political campaign (see Hume and Jaroslovsky 1988). Therefore, the data should not be interpreted to indicate preference but may signify some form of cognitive consistency (Aaker and Myers 1987). Another interpretation suggests that this form of "confrontainment" is entertaining to the American public, and The New York Times provides anecdotal evidence that nastiness has become a popular commodity (Williams 1988). However, this is not a positive outcome from the perspective of typical advertising objectives.

Hill (1989) interprets the results of this study as suggesting that the use of comparative or opponent-negative political advertisements may produce negative reactions from voters, may reflect negatively on the ad sponsor, and may have little impact upon the opposing candidate when compared to sponsor-positive ads. Further, data from the attitude toward the ad measures imply that comparative or opponent-negative advertisements may convey an image of the political process that is consistent with voters' negative perceptions (which they also may find entertaining).

These data and recent polls suggest that a widespread negative approach may reduce both candidates in the estimation of the electorate and may cause a reduction in their believability across all issues. Although some analysts believe that Bush won the 1988 presidential election because of "superior marketing skills" (Hiam 1988; Stringer 1988), he only received votes from 26.77% of eligible voters - hardly a mandate (Berke 1988). Thus, Bush's victory may have been a function of Dukakis's inability to establish a positive image for himself among voters (John Sullivan 1988; McCabe 1988; Toner 1988). Further, those who voted for Bush may have done so because of his close relationship to Ronald Reagan rather than his ability to establish an acceptable image through advertising (Lister 1988; Plattner 1988). This conclusion explains why Bush was often greeted with chants of "four more years" as he campaigned around the country (Boyd 1988).

Many informed sources expect the future to bring increasingly negative responses and even greater voter apathy (see Grove 1989; Taylor 1989). For instance, reliance on graphic and memorable negative images (e.g., the advertisement depicting Willie Horton, the Massachusetts' prisoner furloughed by Dukakis who committed assault and rape) are predicted to continue in national elections, and also may be used with increasing frequency in local elections. Thus, voters will be inundated with negative stimuli, resting in a highly reinforced negative image of the entire electoral process (Hill 1989). Further, the "baby boomer" generation, a 75 million persons segment of the eligible voting population, increasingly will control electoral contests. Because of their higher levels of education and their emphasis on quality goods and services (see Wilkie 1986), this group should demand more rather than less information regarding the positions of candidates on relevant issues. Consequently, voters in future elections may be less receptive to campaigns focussed on a predominately negative approach that provide little, if any, credible information from an obviously self-serving sponsor (see Gorn and Weinberg 1984; Swinyard 1981).


The preceding discussion suggests that advertisers, candidates, and voters all share a negative attitude toward the use of negative advertising. This situation has led some experts to suggest that the privately financed Fair Campaign Practices Commission (FCPC) be revived to arbitrate disputes involving political ads. However, as a tax-exempt organization, the FCPC was prevented from taking any actions that might be construed as intervening on behalf of a particular candidate (Broder 1989a). To overcome this obstacle, Maloney (1989) recommends the establishment of a bipartisan presidential commission containing former members of the Federal Trade Commission, present members of the National Advertising Review Board, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, and network, advertising agency and media representatives. Such a commission would be asked to use its collective experience and wisdom as a basis for judging the suitability of individual political ads. However, due to the First Amendment right of free speech, political consultants cc air advertisements deemed unsuitable by the commission. Nonetheless, the "unsuitable" and moral suasion that followed the ad may limit their use (see Maloney 1990 for more

Preferred method notwithstanding, ms individuals associated with the advertising

profession feel that some form of regulation necessary unless the candidates themselves practice self-restraint (Caywood 1989) - an unlikely given the current belief in the effectiveness negative political advertising campaigns. T some politicians support legislation limiting the "talking head" variety as a way to encourage reasoned discourse over visual demagoguery, requiring the sponsoring candidate to appear end of their ads to vouch for their veracity,, providing free response time to the targets c negative ads (Taylor 1990). According to a spokesperson for Senator John Danforth, the Missouri Republican who has included the "enhanced disclosure" rule in his package of legislation the Clean Campaign Act, "It would be a pre potent deterrent to the type of advertising y parents would be ashamed of you running' (Rothenberg 1990, p. E4). However, the constitutionality of such a measure is questionable. Thus, Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma would condition the provision on the candidate's v acceptance of public financing. Here, the F Amendment issues become unclear (see Roth for more details).

Before such a body convenes, more research in the consumer behavior tradition is necessary to improve our understanding of this phenomenon and to help determine the appropriate public policy direction(s). First, future investigations should use more than one issue to explore whether responses are consistent across voter concerns. In the 1988 presidential election, topics such as abortion, defense spending, AIDS, super-power relationships, and the homeless would have provided appropriate choices. Results may show that for some issues (e.g., abortion) a simple statement of position contained within a comparative or opponent negative ad may be perceived as useful by voters. However, for more complex or less clear-cut issues (e.g., the homeless), the tendency to mislead may be greater and simple statements may not capture the essential character of an opponent's position.

Second, test ads need to be examined determine whether voters' perceptions are consistent with advertisers' intentions. For example, do voters feel that sponsor-positive ads implicitly criticize the opponent? Do they feel that ad sponsors who disparage opponents in comparative or opponent-negative ads remain credible? Investigations of these questions will help determine whether such an approach has the potential to deceive voters.

Third. the use of traditional two-sided messages (i.e., pros and cons of the sponsor's positions on major issues in relation to the opponent) should be tested. Swinyard (1981) found the use of such messages in a comparative format increased the credibility of the sponsor significantly. Thus, these ads may serve a useful purpose consistent with the original position of the FTC regarding comparative ads (Wilkie and Farris 1975).

Fourth, stimulus ads should be developed using both print and broadcast media, and should emphasize pictorial versus verbal/written information or a combination of both to determine whether these factors impact the effectiveness of political ads. For example, in a review of the literature Lang and Lanfear (1990) found that negative political ads are more effective when embedded in a strong visual image. On the other hand, they concluded that positive ads can be presented either visually or verbally and still be effective.

Fifth, variations in the sponsor of the advertisement may impact-their effectiveness. Garramone and Smith (1984, p. 771) state that:

Experimental research indicates that independently-sponsored political commercials are more effective than those sponsored by a candidate. Specifically, independently-sponsored negative advertising attacking a targeted candidate results in a more negative perception of that candidate's image than negative ads sponsored by the opposing candidate.

Finally, behavioral intentions to vote for a particular candidate need to be included as a dependent variable because of their ultimate importance to political elections. - In order for ads to have an effect on this variable, several exposures to stimulus ads may be required. Further, a special emphasis on less-committed or uncommitted voters is needed because of their significance in close elections, and an attempt should be made to recruit study subjects from diverse social and economic backgrounds including young voters, the elderly, and the disadvantaged who traditionally have been the focus of FTC actions.


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Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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