Home > Uncategorized > Reaction 4: In Defense of Negativity: Rethinking the role of negative advertising in American democracy

Reaction 4: In Defense of Negativity: Rethinking the role of negative advertising in American democracy

With the 2010 Senate and House elections approaching, citizens, journalists and pundits alike are quick to denounce political advertisements as manipulative, nasty, and without merit.  Yet, would America’s democracy really be better off without them?  John G. Geer (2006), in his book In Defense of Negativity, asserts that this is definitely not the case; he argues that negative advertisements are not only beneficial to American democracy, but the “practice of democracy requires negativity” (p. 6). 

While some citizens, and particularly journalists, might find his assertion, on its face, hard to swallow, I argue that Geer’s argument is persuasive.  In fact, I purport that In Defense of Negative offers one of the most compelling arguments of political communication scholarship offered by either proponents or opponents of negative advertisements.

I find it difficult to argue with Geer’s central premise:  negative ads are beneficial, even necessary, for a democratic system of governance.  He argues that “the give and take of democratic politics demands that we know both the good and bad points of candidates and their policy goals.”  Thus, “when going negative, candidates can actually advance the debate, not undermine it” (p. 6). 

The reason negative advertising is beneficial lies in the amount of relevant information available in negative appeals as opposed to positive advertisements.  Using a content analysis of all political advertisements between 1960 to 2000, Geer finds that attack ads provide better information to voters than positive political advertisements.  First, Geer shows that negative advertisements are more likely to contain policy information than positive appeals (p. 63).  Second, he illustrates that positive advertisements contain less evidence than negative advertisements because campaigns producing attack ads must show proof of their accusations in order to be considered credible by the public (p. 52).  Furthermore, Geer presents evidence that “attacks are more likely to be specific, more likely to be about issues that the public considers important, and more likely to concern real problems facing the government” than self-promotional claims (p. 87).  In the end, Geer concludes that negativity in campaigns enhances democratic values by increasing the amount and quality of information available to the public (p. 153).  This, he argues, is why restricting the amount of negative political advertisements would have a detrimental effects on the citizenry because such action would decrease the information flow in an election, creating less informed voters (p. 160).

I completely agree.  Negative advertisements are necessary if we want people to make rational choices when selecting candidates.  For example, imagine the 2010 Missouri Senate campaign without negative advertisements.  Here is Roy Blunt, a true Missourian.  Here is Robin Carnahan, a good person.  How do we make decisions based on such limited, and difficult to prove, claims?  Sure, we could just vote for the best looking candidate, or the one who represents our party, but what is rational about that?  In other words, while we might not find the negative ads of Blunt and Carnahan appealing, the fact that we learn some of their issue stances, and the other side’s perspective on his/her opponent’s policy positions, makes these ads necessary.  In sum, democracy demands we understand the bad as well as the good, and negative advertising enables us to hear both sides.  Moreover, negativity in ads enables citizens to hold politicians accountable.  Because accountability is a central part of any democratic election, we cannot afford to eliminate negative ads altogether.

Thus, I think Geer’s book In Defense of Negativity offers scholars and citizens a new perspective on negative advertisements that is both persuasive and revolutionary.  I assert that, before citizens, pundits, and journalists criticize negative advertisements and make recommendations to rid the political world of attack ads, they should read Geer’s book.  By dispensing with negative ads, we would not only inhibit citizens from making rational decisions, but cripple our own ideas of what democracy is and should be.

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