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Q&A with Alison Novak: Political Rhetoric and Negative Attack Ads

September 5, 2012

Alison Novak

Though attack ads have been a part of U.S. politics since the days of the Founding Fathers, the negative advertising present throughout this election season has been regarded as particularly nasty. Curious to know how attack ads affect the voting public, DrexelNow spoke with Alison Novak, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Culture and Communication, about the slew of political attack ads that have been populating the airwaves recently—and will likely do so until the November 6 Presidential Election.

Who do attack ads affect the most?

Attack ads are not usually designed for the extremes on either side—they’re usually designed for the people in the middle, who either haven’t made up their minds yet or feel like they don’t have enough information to make the decision. They may feel like attack ads help them fill in their gaps in information. There are a lot of attack ads, and they’re all made for different people, so there’s a lot of variety in them—even though the variations are minimal, you can see how different groups of people are targeted with each ad.

Are attack ads effective or are they so obviously skewed that people see past them and feel compelled to do their own candidate research, or do they frustrate voters and cause political disengagement?

Well, I think we’d like [voters to do their own research], but honestly it just takes so much time to get to the truth of everything. Where do you go? You can’t go to the media—we know that’s biased—and if you go to the Internet, you’ve got every opinion at once coming at you. Often, people make decisions based on whatever they hear from family and friends. And as much as we’d like attack ads to not have much of an effect, I think they potentially do in the sense that they’re the most easily accessed information. Sometimes I think attack ads have such a negative effect that people decide not to vote at all. There’s potentially a whole generation of voters who say, “I’m not dealing with this.” People don’t always like to see that outwardly aggressive behavior, and unfortunately that’s a part of campaigning.

How do you think attack ads effect people who aren’t registered to vote? Might an ad influence someone to register and vote?

I think there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in it, so if you’re looking for a reason to hate a candidate, an attack ad might give you that reason, but at the same time, it might be a bit strong to assume a person would feel compelled to act based on an attack ad. We see so many of them that they lose their potency. They’re not shocking anymore; people kind of just accept them as part of the whole sphere of politics. Unfortunately, a lot of people look for reasons to hate a particular candidate; they’re looking for something to validate their frustrations with the economy, unemployment, etc., and it’s always possible that one good attack ad could provide that validation.