Provision meant to discourage negative political ads may do the opposite, study finds

Clayton Critcher/Courtesy

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The campaign advertising disclaimer, “My name is ____, and I approve this message,” was originally mandated to discourage negative political advertising, but a recent study by a UC Berkeley professor found that it may actually have the opposite effect.

The study found that these disclaimers may actually enhance the credibility of the kind of advertisements that the requirements were designed to discourage. The tagline was mandated in the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 as part of the Stand By Your Ad, or SBYA, tagline provision.

The study found, however, that the SBYA tagline actually makes negative political advertisements more credible — the reverse of the intended effect of the requirement, according to Clayton Critcher, associate professor of marketing at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and co-author of the study.

“What legislators did not intend is what we found — that inclusion of the tagline actually makes some ads seem more believable than they would have otherwise,” Critcher said.

As part of the study, participants watched, read or listened to advertisements — both real political ads from past elections and fake ads written for the purpose of this study — and were randomly assigned to see an advertisement with the SBYA tagline either preserved or edited out, according to Critcher.

Critcher said that when the tagline was preserved as opposed to edited out, the message was seen as more credible and less biased. He said the study suggested that the reason for this is twofold: first, the association of the SBYA tagline with regulation gives the message of the advertisement legitimacy; and second, the language “I approve this message” is taken as a promise of the advertisement’s truthfulness.

The study also found that negative advertisements with SBYA taglines experienced higher positive evaluations when the ads were policy-focused but that the tagline had no discernible effect on the evaluations of positive or character-focused political advertisements, according the the study’s abstract.

Critcher said the end of the study offers suggestions, such as the replacement tagline, “My name is X, and I am running for Y,” although he added that the study’s authors worry that this phrase will affect voters similarly once voters know it is complaint with regulations. The study suggests it might be useful to somehow make it clear that the Federal Election Commission has not verified the advertisements’ content.

“It passes the smell test, from someone who works in the field,” said Tom Clifford, principal at Clifford Moss, a political strategy and public affairs firm.

Clifford suggested that while a credibility boost may certainly be an effect of the SBYA tagline, he believes the tagline also has an effect on another relevant factor — the voter’s view of the candidate’s leadership. He added that this is important because candidates who succeed are more likely those who are willing to “stand up and show courage.”

Contact Luke Kopetsky at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @LukeKopetsky.