Negative ads hit a new low this campaign season

Posted at 10:51 AM, Nov 05, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: This semester has partnered with VCU’s School of Mass Communications “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project. Students from the project reported the following story.

RICHMOND, Va. – One of the most negative gubernatorial campaigns in recent Virginia history is coming to an end this Tuesday as voters started heading to the polls in the morning. Political advertising experts say that the campaign ads this fall were more negative than ever and are part of the reason why Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli receive such low favorability ratings in the polls.

While McAuliffe called Cuccinelli “not for us” and Cuccinelli called McAuliffe “flamboyant, ” the attack ads attempted to make the other candidate look unsuitable for office.

Watch attack ads by the McAuliffe and Cuccinelli campaigns:

Although the public seems tired of negative campaigning, political advertising expert Russ Gottwald said that the reason voters have seen so many negative ads is “because both candidates are very badly flawed. That’s usually the case, so that’s why negative campaigning tends to be more effective.”

Gottwald also explained that even though the public doesn’t approve, there is no end in sight for political attack ads. “The problem is that the purpose behind negative ads isn’t to motivate your guys to get out there, but to make the borderline supporters waiver and decide to stay home,” he said.

The campaigns took a similar approach to these negative attacks. Cuccinelli’s campaign focused on releasing each ad in a similar style, but covering different topics. His ads have different names, like “Deserve,” “Your Side,” “Justice,” and “Serious.” Each ad covered a specific theme. In “Serious,” the ad describes Cuccinelli as “precise, serious, and detail-oriented,” while labeling McAuliffe as “uninformed, superficial, and flamboyant.”

Like his opponent, McAuliffe’s ads cover the similar themes and his fundraising success has allowed him to run a wave of ads portraying Cuccinelli in a negative light. An ad called “The Pill” attacked Cuccinelli’s stance on women’s rights and the issue of contraception. The ad claims that Cuccinelli sponsored a bill that could have made commonly used forms of birth control illegal.

“[Cuccinelli] has a high differential among women voters. The gender gap is really the decisive factor here,” said Deidra Condit, chair of the Political Science and International Studies Department at VCU. “I think it’s an easier set of tasks for his opponent,” she added. Condit said that the goal of negative advertisements is usually to suppress voter turnout, and in that sense McAuliffe’s ads may be more successful than his opponent’s.

Along with negative advertisements funded by the candidates’ campaigns, a number of outside advocacy groups have released their own ads attacking the candidates. The Republican Governors Association raised questions about McAuliffe’s commitment to Virginia workers, using videos of McAuliffe talking about his new “plant in China” and suggesting that he will send jobs overseas if elected governor.

Supporting McAuliffe with an ad campaign against Cuccinelli were various pro-choice organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, which released an ad focused on Cuccinelli’s pro-life agenda. The ad claims that Cuccinelli supports crisis centers who supposedly lie to women planning an abortion.

Katie Hurst, a senior account manager at the advertising agency Madison+Main, said that using statistics and emotional triggers plays an important role in political ads. “As an overall strategy, using statistics, emotional pulls and testimonials are always effective strategies for the content of political advertising,” Hurst said.

But Condit also believes that political ads, whether positive or negative, don’t necessarily influence the voters. “We cannot tell you that there is an exact relationship between an ad and someone being more or less likely to vote,” she said.

Watch VCU political scientist Deidra Condit review negative campaign ads by Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli:

So, who has done a better job with the negative attacks? Hurst believes that both candidates ran substantial campaigns. “Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are both running heavy campaigns in the Richmond area. It’s hard to say who has done a better job, but I think that McAuliffe’s ads convincing people not to vote for Cuccinelli have used attention grabbing statistics and may give him a slight leg up.”

Both Gottwald and Condit also noted that the last few weeks of the campaign have seen a change in the ad attacks. “I think both candidates started off with terrible ads,” said Condit. “I think this last week, a dramatic shift has happened in both campaigns. I think the negative ads are smarter and more targeted.”

Gottwald also said that in the past few weeks, the ad strategies have changed somewhat in an effort to bring focus to the candidates positive side. For instance, TV spots featuring women have been among the most recent ads for Cuccinelli, who has been trailing in the polls behind Cuccinelli.

“It’s a weird situation where the candidate who’s running behind, actually in a last ditch effort to change things, resorts to positive campaigning,” said Gottwald.

For those already tired of all political ads, the good news is that they will have disappeared from TV screens and mailboxes by Wednesday morning.

By Will Hooper and Destiny Brandon (Special to

This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between and VCU’s School of Mass Communications.