An aggregate examination of the backlash effect in political advertising: The case of the 1996 senate race in Minnesota

This reading explains the “dual effects” of negative political information targeted at the public, and tries to find out the intended and unintended effects of negative advertising during a political campaign. Politicians spend significant amount of money on advertising during campaigns to garner support from the voters. These advertisements can be positive (where the ad makes good of the politician) or negative (where the ad fires other politician).

In this reading, two politicians are involved – Wellstone and Boschwitz. Boschwitz’s favourability dropped while Wellstone’s favourability remained. Some explanation for this would include the fact that there has been negative information about Boschwitz in advertisements sponsored by Wellstone. However, in such situations, there can be a backlash, where the negative information will hurt the sponsor of the ad instead of the targeted politician.

Two main forms of advertising that play a significant role in influencing voters’ decision are television broadcast and news coverage. Most consultants think that providing negative information always works. Research has shown that negative notions works better than positive notions when creating impressions.

Intended effects of negative advertising aims to invoke negative feelings from the voters to the target politician. On the contrary, unintended effects of negative advertising are those that hurt the sponsors unexpectedly. As such, negative information in political advertising is a double-edged sword. The effect of negative information would depend on the sources of the message. For example, positive advertising messages from Boschwitz could favour him; negative advertising messages from Boschwitz targeted at Wellstone would result in a backlash, thus affecting his favourability.

The intended effects model and the intended plus backlash effects model were tested. Findings are as per below:

  1. Positive information about Boschwitz increased his favourability.
  2. Negative information caused a drop in the public’s favourability ratings of Boschwitz.
  3. The impact of negative information is four times greater than the impact of positive information.

Granted, these findings have their own limitations, one being the fact that they are based on a single case study. However, it acts as a good gauge for the impact that negative advertising messages can have on a politician. Also, the credibility of the source and its persuasiveness has a linear relationship. On top of it all, the number of advertisements can affect how voters feel about the politician – the more ads they see, the more they detest the politician.


Points to think about:

  • Do you think that adding humour into political ads will help the politician or cause a backlash?
  • What are some of the effective methods that have been used in Singapore to gain voters’ favourability?


Jasperson A. E. & Fan D. P. (2002). An aggregate examination of the backlash effect in political advertising: The case of the 1996 senate race in Minnesota. Journal of Advertising, 31, 1-12.



2 comments so far

  1. ischmimi on

    This is an interesting piece of information on the way the sponsor of negative information might be implicated on its quest bring its opponent down. Politicians who embark on tactics and strategies to disseminate negative information about his or her opponent have to be skillful and wise in deciding what information to present, how to frame the information, when to disseminate the information and through which channel.

    The age old adage that “what you say about others speak more about yourself” supports the theory on dual effects of political messages.

    With regards to the questions you have posed, I feel that it is not the humor in and of itself that would be an impede or an aid to the politician. It is the content of the humor, the style and delivery of the message, the timing of the message, the channel through which it is being delivered, the relevancy of the message, the audience, the people that would be implicated by the humorous message that matters. There is no hard and fast rule of whether it should or should not be used. For example, the terrorist attack on 911 is a sensitive issue and any rational politician would be careful about joking about it. On the other hand, joking about another politician’s unusual pet peeve may help one in gaining fans. From my observation, when skillful politicians employ humor at the right times, the message becomes more impactful and memorable.

    In Singapore, I observed one way politicians have gained the support of the people. It is through the branding of oneself as a common man (not an elitist) who uses common language (no jargons) to communicate to the public that he or she is concerned about the problems of the working class. Through such presentations, politicians in Singapore often win the admiration and praise of the people. This is because, nothing speaks hope like a leader who knows his people. Singaporeans seem to value sincerity, goodwill and firmness in a leader. Humor is optional. Interestingly, this rakes a memory of how PM Lee wanted to connect with the people by mentioning a local dish ‘mee siam’ in his speech. Instead of impressing the audience, he became an overnight sensation of how he does not know that the mee siam is not served with cockles, a sign that the public read as elitist.

  2. janesxm on

    I feel that humour, if used correctly, is able to bring the politician closer to the audience. As much as it adds positive impressions for the politician, too much of it can be an overkill. The people will not take the politician as seriously as what was intended, and the message that the politician would like for the audience to take away will be lost.

    I do agree with the observation about politicians branding themselves as a common man to gain the support of the people in Singapore. I suppose this stems from knowing what the people want. As mentioned, speaking a common language helps. During the 2011 General Elections, Hokkien (one of the dialects) was spoken during one of the Workers’ Party Rally. I feel it gives the audience, especially the older generation, a sense of familarity, and it definitely adds to the appeal factor. It is undeniable that the content of the speech is important, but as Marshall McLuhan has said, “The medium is the message” – the way politicians phrase and present themselves play a significant role in affecting how voters feel about the politician.

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