Home > Uncategorized > Missing the boat: Perpetuating a discourse of “negativity”

Missing the boat: Perpetuating a discourse of “negativity”

Since Ansolabehere and Iyengars (1995) book, Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate, came out with the results that negative ads and campaigns hurt voter turnout and ultimately have a demobilizing effect, many studies have since tried to understand if these finding are actually true or not. Some studies play their quantitative games of manipulating data, another reconfigured the original study, others compile studies to give audiences a “meta-analysis”, and overall studies continue to test and negotiate whether or not negativity in campaigns and advertising actually demobilizes, mobilizes, and/or if there are any benefits to negativity in campaigns and advertising. Studies tend to argue that this is important research because negativity does occur in campaigns.

Negativity is typically understood as ads that attack the opponents image or their handing of issues. Negativity is also seen as a component of contrast ads. Contrast ads are ads that bolster and acclaim the sponsor or preferred candidate and also attack the opponent.  Overall, negativity in ads is generally aligned with attacks. However, the content of ads is not only how scholars seem to understand negativity in ads. Scholars also tend to rely on the media for their interpretation of the campaign to determine whether a campaign is negative or not. Even though research seems to be fairly consistent in revealing that the media tends to overreport negativity and create misperceptions about campaigns (Geer, In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, 2006).

There a few points that are important to consider about a lot of the research on negativity in campaigns and advertising. First, we need to do more work at deconstructing the discourse of “negativity”. The research seems fairly content on labeling ads that attack as negative, even though these ads tend to be more substantive than ads that acclaim and bolster. Ads that are labeled as “negative” tend to provide more evidence than acclaim ads (Geer, 2006); they tend to provide clash in the campaign which allows room for debate, criticism, and critical thoughts about the campaign, candidates, and issues at hand; they tend to provide information and therefore contribute to political information efficacy;  and they have the potential to mobilize. Thus, to continuously label these ads as “negative” I argue is extremely problematic and is actually framing these ads more negatively than they deserve. This “negative” discourse permeates all levels of campaigns and campaign advertising discourse and creates an understanding that these ads are “negative”. Thus discursively framing these ads and campaigns in such a way misrepresents the ads, the campaigns, and perpetuates a form of “knowledge” that is inherently problematic, yet consistently normalizing. Because of this, effects scholars seem entrenched in this discourse facilitating studies that mostly miss the boat, and the media mouthpieces and talking heads are in the same dark ocean without a light.

Next, by deconstructing the discourse of “negativity” in campaigns and advertising, and by better understanding the utility in the ads and campaigns labeled as such we begin to uncover very positive aspects of “negativity”. As mentioned above “negative” ads have many positive attributes and it is these positive attributes that are very important, and without them campaigning would be a different beast. In fact campaigning would be less like a beast, and more like a complacent, docile and undemocratic apparatus that resembles societies that are unable to participate in their political system because everything is already decided for them and there is a general lack competition. For example, without clash in campaigns, like debates, there would be no way to differentiate the issues, and the candidates. Clash, debate, and arguments with evidence are all important components of campaigning in order to create distinctions between the issues and candidates and these components are found in these ads labeled “negative”.

Finally, by continuously perpetuating the accusation and discourse that these productive ads and campaigns are “negative”- the media, which at one point in time were supposed to be the “watchdogs” for Americans, and are “supposed” to investigate and report, now tend to continuously reproduce the discourse that campaigning and ads are “negative”, and increasingly so. The media lacks a critical lens and therefore rarely accounts for the merits of such ads and campaigning. It is the lack of literacy within the media apparatus that perpetuates a lack of media literacy within the public. The agenda setting and framing functions of the media reproduce the discourses of “negativity” ultimately doing a major disservice to the people, campaigns, and politics.

Overall, I am arguing that effects scholars and the media seem to be entrenched in a discourse that creates, recreates, and co-constructs ideas that ads that contain clash, arguments, attacks, and ground for debate are “negative”. Unfortunately, this helps to set the agenda for the public and frame the information to the public that campaigns and ads are also “negative”. This lack of criticism and its disadvantages are reasons why the rhetoricians, critical scholars, and cultural scholars must not be silenced by the dominant predisposition of effects scholars and also the media. If we believed the discourse about “negativity” as presented by effects scholars and the media then we would and should feel a threat to our political process. However, because evidence suggests that they are entrenched in Orwellian discourse (discourse that misrepresents and even suggests the opposite of what is actually being communicated) we can feel better that campaigns and ads are important parts of our democracy. We can only hope that one day the blinders will be removed and more accurate research and reporting can be done.  Until then, be critical of the discourse suggesting that campaigns and ads are “negative”.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Brian Houston
    October 20, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    “Some studies play their quantitative games of manipulating data…”

    Why all the negativity about quantitative research?

    Is manipulating data purely a quantitative exercise? Can’t the qualitative or rhetorical or critical scholar also manipulate his or her data?

    And aren’t effect researchers the ones examining the promise or perils of negative political advertising? Couldn’t this advertising be called “negative” because it typically includes negative information about the opponent? The negativity is the attack, it is the reason not to vote for someone else.

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