Playing dirty in 2020 – but does negative advertising actually work in elections?

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2020 has been a historic year – on so many fronts. And as the summer of an election year approaches – soon we will be inundated with speeches, policies, promise and advertisements for what might be the most hotly contested and divisive election on record.

Political advertising comes in many forms. Social media will be the new battle ground but hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent between now and November in traditional areas like television, radio and print.

As we all know, no one ‘wants’ to go negative. In fact, most campaigns make (and soon break) their first promise to run a clean and positive campaign. But usually, the inevitable happens and the ads go negative.

Now that the June primaries are in the books except for the June 23 runoffs, the countdown to November’s election is underway. You’ll gradually see more and more political advertising.

On the state and national levels, most of the pitches to date have been building up a particular candidate. Negativity has not been at the level of elections in the past.

Look for that to change. It was true then and it will be true now.

Writing ahead of the 2018 midterm election, a reporter for, Andrew Solender, cited a study shedding light on why negative advertising is so prevalent in elections.

Michael Lewis and David A. Schweidel of Emory University and Yanwen Wang of the University of British Columbia initially planned to look at using social media as a tool for predicting election results. But as social media rapidly became commonplace in elections, they shifted their focus to the impact and efficacy of negative advertising, a staple of elections.

“For forever, voters have expressed disgust with the level of negative advertising,” Lewis said, “but we see a lot of it. So, [the question was] does it actually work?”

According to the data their study produced, it does. But under certain conditions.

Looking at correlations between the volume of negative ads and the vote shares achieved by U.S. Senate candidates in 2010 and 2012, the researchers found that “while positive political advertising does not affect two-party vote share, negative political advertising has a significant positive effect on two-party vote shares.”

However, they also found that the source of the ads makes a difference in the ads’ efficacy, noting “negative advertising sponsored by PACs is significantly less effective than that sponsored by the candidate or party in affecting two-party vote shares.”  June 18 - The Times and Democrat

The road to the White House, and just about every other elected office up for grabs this November will be under heavy scrutiny and lots of coverage. If you’re a journalist covering this topic – then let our experts help.

Professor Michael Lewis is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. Professor Lewis is an expert in political marketing and is available to speak to media – simply click on his icon to arrange an interview today.