Research from a Western University professor indicates negative attack ads may not be a winning strategy for politicians.
A study co-authored by Chris Alcantara, a professor of political science at Western, found that negative political advertisements can actually have the opposite of their intended effect within Canada's multi-party system. Alcantara notes that while candidates who attack their opponents may receive increased attention, their chances of winning votes usually decreases.
"We found that attacking — going negative — was always a bad idea," Alcantara said. "In the case, for instance, when one party attacks and the other two [don't], the vote probability for the attacker … goes down quite a bit."
The study, titled "Fighting Fire with Fire: The Implications of (Not) Going Negative in a Multiparty Election Campaign," found that the only instance in which attack ads work is when all parties are producing attack ads.
Alcantara and co-author Jason Roy conducted their research using eight fictional elections which each portrayed a different combination of negative or positive campaign strategies for three fictional parties. The parties were labeled Q, R and S, and the fictional candidates leading the parties each shared similar characteristics so as not to have the results influenced by political beliefs or candidate preferences among participants.
The authors admit that their simulated elections don't represent all of the complexities present during real elections, including ideological biases already existing within voters. The study recognizes that politicians may also be more likely to pursue a mixed campaign strategy in real elections, simultaneously promoting their campaign and attacking their opponents.
With the Ontario provincial election fast approaching and a federal election on the horizon, voters may see attack ads in the near future. However, the research's findings are clear:
"Our results suggest voters in multi-party settings are turned off by negativity when it comes to vote choice," the study states.