Attack of the attack ads: Expert weighs in on impact negative ads have on current, future voters

MADISON, Wis. — No matter what screen you’re on in the past few weeks, odds are you’ve been bombarded by political ads. But what kind of impact are they having on current and future voters’ perceptions of the political environment?  

The ads are nothing new. But in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s you could change the channel or turn off the set if you were tired of seeing them. But now? 

“They’re also on our mobile devices, they’re there when we want to watch a YouTube video or playing a video game that these ads pop up, and so they’re everywhere in a way that we can no longer avoid,” said Mike Wagner, a professor with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

WATCH: UW-Madison’s Mike Wagner on political ads as election nears

Every election it may seem the ads are getting more toxic — to the point many politicians agree.

“On TV they’re God awful,” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said at a canvassing event in Milwaukee. “The attack ads on all sides are inappropriate and bad.”  

On the Republican side, Sena. Ron Johnson shared a similar sentiment in one of his last ads before election day.

“Aren’t you tired of the anger and division? I know I am,” he said while raking leaves.  

“This is something that voters share too,” Wagner said. “Most people say they do not like negative ads but they do tend to be responsive to negative ads.”

But according to Wagner, it’s not necessarily that the ads themselves worsened. “I think negative ads are a symptom of the toxic environment.” 

“We’ve had very negative, we’ve had racist, we’ve had racially tinged, we’ve had all kinds of negative ads throughout the country’s history,” he said.

Rather, the ads have shifted their attack from not just policies and platforms, but personality.  

“The negativity is so strident; it makes it very difficult for citizens to imagine compromise. If the other side is evil and not to be trusted, why would we ever want to support compromise with the other side?” Wagner said. “Even to tell basic truths like who won an election.”  

“We’ve seen many candidates say that they are not willing to say that they’ll endorse the election results, that they’re not confident their votes won’t be counted accurately — even though we know that our country and our state are really good at counting ballots accurately,” he said. 

And because the ads have hopped to all types of screens, their reach stretches to unwitting youth and kids.  

“When young people are playing a video game or looking for something on YouTube, and they have to watch a negative ad before they can do what they went to the internet to do, they’re exposed to something that they weren’t looking for and that they can’t avoid,” Wagner said.  

According to Wagner, the avalanche of negativity can cause some people to believe that there isn’t anything Republicans and Democrats can do to compromise, taking away hope “our young people have in our system’s ability to solve problems and in their own sense that their vote might matter.”  

And yet, experts and candidates know, “the data shows that [attack ads] work too,” said Gov. Evers, “which is really unfortunate, it’s a commentary on the times.”  

They may not work completely, Wagner said, as long as exposure to the ads is paired with plenty of independent investigation.  

“They tend to spur individuals to want to learn more about candidates,” he said, “and so even though we don’t like them, we learn from them and we tend to be more interested in learning more if we see negative ads.”  

READ MORE: Why are TV stations forced to run political ads?

FCC rules govern how and when political ads appear on stations. They aren’t held to the same accuracy standards, they can’t be edited or censored, and if a station decides to run an ad from one candidate, it has to allow all candidates airtime for the same price.