Jill G. Klein & Rohini Ahluwalia
Millions of dollars are spent on marketing political candidates during each election year. An increasing percentage of these dollars is spent on negative campaigning on the basis of the belief that negative information about political candidates is more influential than positive information in swaying voter preferences. It is because of this firm belief in the weight of negative information that political pundits continue to advocate its use despite recent data that demonstrate that negativity in political campaigning disenfranchises voters and could lead to low voter turnout and involvement.
Previous research based on the American National Election Studies (NES) database provides the strongest unchallenged source of "real" (as opposed to laboratory) data that demonstrates a clear negativity effect (i.e., greater weighting by voters of candidate weaknesses as compared to candidate strengths) in each of six elections analyzed in past research. In contrast, the current research takes a motivational view and questions the robustness of this finding. NES data from two elections (1992, 1996) and the Super Tuesday data (1988) are analyzed. The results converge in suggesting that the negativity effect is much less prevalent in the evaluation of political candidates than previously believed; it is significant only in judgments of candidates that the voter is motivated to dislike. This motivation may occur because the voter either has a preference for an opponent or simply dislikes the candidate. The analyses indicate this subset of the electorate drives the aggregate-level negativity effect obtained in past research.
The authors, therefore, argue that findings in previous negativity research were due to aggregation of data across voters varying in their motivations. These findings question the accepted wisdom that negative campaigning is an effective means of persuading critical voters—especially swing voters—because this research suggests that these target audiences are not motivated to dwell on negatives. The present research suggests that although negative information may have perceptual advantages, a focus on cognitions alone cannot explain its role in complex naturalistic environments in which people are driven by a variety of motivations.
Jill Klein is Associate Professor of Marketing, INSEAD. She received her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan in 1990. During the following seven years she was a member of faculty in the Marketing Department, Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, and she joined the INSEAD faculty in 1997. Her research interests are consumer boycotts, corporate social responsibility, and international marketing, including the effects of international hostility on consumer perceptions of foreign products. She has had articles published in Journal of Marketing, Harvard Business Review, Management Science, and Journal of International Business Studies.
Rohini Ahluwalia is, Associate Professor of Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. Prior to joining the Carlson School, she was a faculty member at theUniversity of Kansas. Her doctoral dissertation, completed at the Ohio State University, was the winner of American Marketing Association's John A. Howard best dissertation award. Her area of expertise is consumer psychology and current work focuses on two major streams of research. One attempts to understand how people process, resist, and are influenced by counterattitudinal and negative information. A second stream of research focuses on branding issues, using an information processing perspective. Her research has been published in journals such as Journal of Marketing Research and Journal of Consumer Research.