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Good Question: How Do Negative Ads Work?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - Very few people say they like all the negative campaign commercials that hit the airways this past September. In fact, most people will tell you negative political ads turn them off. But, for decades, campaigns have spent millions using attack ads. Earlier this year, Kantar Media CMAG found spending on negative ads outpaced spending on positive ads 15-1 since 2010.

So, do they work? And, if so, how? Good Questions.

"They do work, but they don't necessarily work to drive people to the polls, and they don't always move the electorate by more than a couple of points," said Kevin Sauter, a professor of political communication at the University of St. Thomas.

He says the negative ads can affect tight races by a few percentage points by swaying voters with weak allegiances to candidates. They can also spur on the base to come out and vote.

Negative ads are more likely to capture attention because they are generally more complex.

"They work because we are essentially emotional beings, and I think the emotion of these ads, particularly fear appeals, overwhelms our cognitive self, and we react to these," Sauter said.

Fear can be a big motivator to change someone's mind.

Our brains can process information in several ways, but generally, it's centrally, or logically, where we know the ads could be misleading, and peripherally, where we might be affected by colors, voices or appearances. That's why many of the negative ads show grainy, black and white, footage of candidates.

"We're going to process that and give meaning to that somehow, but that doesn't mean we're paying deep attention, but it is going to have some impact on how we think and how we act," Sauter said.

Sauter also suggests the idea of cognitive dissonance might come into play when it comes to these ads. For example, he says we might believe one candidate is great until we hear something bad about him or her. Those two thoughts can cause us to become uncomfortable with the competing ideas and encourage us to vote differently.

"It's hard to change, but the irony is, to get people to change, we have to make them feel bad because why would you change if you feel good?" he said.

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