The ‘I approve’ tagline making political ads more nasty

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The primary season isn’t too far owing to which more and more ads will soon pop-up with the – “I’m Candidate X, and I approve this message” tagline. While there have been laws that requires candidates pay for the tagline on all ads so as to deter negative campaigning, a new study has found that political ads have become more nasty over the years due to this law.

Researchers at New York University’s Stern School of Business show through their study that adding the tagline to policy-based attack ads tend to make the ads more believable and beyond that give people a more positive view of the candidate who gives the tagline endorsement. Scientists found that despite the law put in place to discourage negative campaigning, there has been no slowdown, but instead a surge in negative political advertising has been observed.

Back in 2000 the number of negative ads were at 29 per cent of the total political ads, but come 2012, negative ads reached a high of 64 per cent. A CNN analysis along these lines show that just a week before the 2016 presidential election, a whopping 92 per cent of ads were negative.

While the findings are startling, these results were not what the scientists were after. They wanted to look at whether the ‘I approve’ tagline changes voters’ response and if it does, then why.

For this, the team experimented with real and fictional ads in video, audio, and print formats, conducting four experiments on about 2,000 people recruited from universities and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. They used ads from Congressional races from 2006 to 2010, as well as fictional ads they created by editing together snippets from real advertisements. They asked about 400 people to watch eight TV ads aired by Democratic and Republican candidates in recent Congressional races. In this set were positive and negative ads from each party focused on candidates’ character and policy record. Crucially, the researchers edited out the tagline on half of the ads each viewer saw.

What they found is that although the tagline did not consistently change people’s reaction to positive ads or ad hominem attacks, the tagline did give a clear boost to the policy-based attack ads.

In addition, people had a more favorable view of candidates running negative ads when the tagline was included. The researchers found the same pattern in a second experiment using ads they wrote themselves, which allowed them to more precisely control for the ads’ content.

The effect was substantial: Across all their experiments, the researchers found that the tagline had an even stronger effect than did partisanship.

To find out why there was a boost, scientists ran two more experiments with large sample sizes (639 people and 565 people) and found that even when participants were told the tagline was required by law, and that no regulators had vetted the content’s veracity, they still said the ads that included a tagline were more believable. Participants also were largely unaware of the tagline’s effect: Even those who said that it didn’t influence their evaluation of the ad were indeed influenced by it.

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