How Negative Campaign Ads Appeal To Voter Fears

Oct 14, 2020

Candidates have appealed to voters’ fears by using negative political advertisements throughout the nation’s history, but in modern politics, fear ads have become a crucial part of campaigns. They can be made quickly and come from a variety of sources, but there’s a science to candidates’ use of fear as a political tool.

Politicians play a central role in creating anxiety in times of uncertainty, often taking the form of campaign ads. One of the most noted examples is the 1964 “Daisy” ad, which aired on behalf of incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, warning viewers of the possibility of a nuclear war if his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater were to be elected.

In the ad, a little girl counted as she plucked daisy petals. The camera then froze and zoomed in on her face as a mission-control countdown began, leading to a nuclear blast with a mushroom cloud.

“These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark,” Johnson said in a booming voice over. “We must either love each other or we must die.”

The “Daisy” ad did more than just help Johnson win, it pioneered negative campaign ads that appeal to voters’ fears.

In the book Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World, authors Shana Kushner Gadarian and Bethany Albertson found fear ads are memorable and effective since they increase the desire for protection and lead people to search for additional threatening information. Even though threatening appeals from candidates are often strategic, they can also be sincere. Some dangers are imminent and need to be addressed so people can take precautions.

As the “Daisy” ad demonstrates, candidates usually focus people’s anxiety on issues that Gadarian said are electorally beneficial for their party and warn of dangers the country could face if certain policies aren’t eneacted or certain candidates aren’t elected.

But just evoking anxiety isn’t always enough. Gadarian said politicians also need to offer a solution.

“What politicians want to do is they want to tell you the opponent has either policies that are outside the norm, they are going to endanger you and your family physically or they're going to endanger your way of life,” Gadarian said. “And so the solution to that is: ‘Don't vote for that person. Vote for me.’”

Tyler Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, said stylistic choices such as booming voice-overs, grainy photographs, ominous music and fast-paced transitions maximize the impact of fear ads. On the other hand, positive ads feature bright colors, smiling people, upbeat music and less contrast in candidates.

Johnson used the recent ads related to the race for Oklahoma’s 5th congressional seat between incumbent Demoratic U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn and Republican State Senator Stephanie Bice as an example.

“Anytime you see a picture of Kendra Horn in an ad that she is running, the color just pops out,” Johnson said. “She's always seemingly wearing vivid purples and blues and things like that. But if it is some outside group running an anti-Horn ad, and they use a picture of her, it's like the worst picture possible. It's faded. And so little things like that can put people at unease.”

Another common feature of fear ads is vagueness. Johnson said politicians benefit from appealing to broad, general fears and alluding to potential solutions rather than offering details.

“The more you get specific about your solution, the more you open yourself up to critiques of that solution or people sort of picking it apart,” Johnson said. “And that puts you on the defensive. So it kind of makes sense either if you're going positive or negative to try to keep things as sweeping as possible.”

Even though fear ads are often effective, politicians risk receiving backlash if ads are perceived as being too intense, forceful or manipulative.

Kyle Loveless, a former Oklahoma Republican State Senator who has experience in management and advertising, said the public might be off-put by fear ads that paint certain politicians, especially incumbents, in a light that’s not consistent with the public’s perception.

“I think we’re at a tipping point where there is a little bit of resistance to it, I think, of using fear,” Loveless said. “But by and large, the only way we’re going to know is after the election. We'll see, OK, did we scare them so much that they don't go vote, or did we scare them so much that it mobilizes them to go vote?”

This report was produced by Katelyn Howard for Oklahoma Engaged, an election project by NPR member stations in Oklahoma supported by the Inasmuch Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and Oklahoma Humanities.