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'I Approve This Message' Has an Unwelcome Subtext

New research finds the famous tagline on political ads makes issue-oriented attacks seem more legitimate.

With another election cycle looming, we'll soon be subjected to a bombardment of political ads on radio and television that conclude with the words "I'm Candidate X, and I approve this message."

This tagline was mandated by a 2002 law intended to curb the use of negative advertising. After all, the reasoning went, what candidate would want to be directly associated with obvious smears?

New research reports the law not only failed at its goal—it also created an unintended effect. It turns out that authoritative-sounding phrase makes policy-oriented negative ads seem more credible.

Many participants in a study saw that notification as an indication that "the ad had been touched by regulation," said Clayton Critcher of the University of California–Berkeley, who co-authored the study with Minah Jung of New York University. "That gave a legitimizing halo to the message as a whole. We hope that by bringing this to light, policymakers might realize this provision is not serving the public, and find a better way."

In the Journal of Marketing Research, Critcher and Jung describe a series of studies. The first featured first featured 404 undergraduates who watched eight ads from real-life Senate races. Some of the spots were doctored to remove the "I approved this ad" line.

After viewing each ad, participants rated it for believability and bias, and assessed the sponsoring candidate in terms of honesty, sincerity, and qualifications for the job. For the second study, the 338 participants read and evaluated fictional campaign ads that did or did not conclude with the tagline.

The results: "Not only did the 'stand by your ad' tagline enhance the perceived believability of policy attack ads," the researchers write, "it also produced more positive evaluations for the ads' sponsoring candidates."

This suggests "mandatory endorsements ironically incentivize reliance on certain forms of negative advertising, making them more believable than they would have been otherwise."

A follow-up study found this effect largely occurs outside of our conscious awareness. A final study found the effect was triggered only under the specific circumstances required by current law—that is, hearing the candidate's voice endorse the message.

"When the candidate spoke, the approval language—which, when delivered by the candidate, constitutes a promise—encouraged higher ad evaluations," the researchers report.

But this effect did not occur when the words were spoken by a narrator, using third-person language ("This ad is sponsored by Steve Kagan; he approved this message"), or if the candidate was heard, but he or she did not make an explicit endorsement of the ad's content ("I'm Steve Kagan, and I'm running for Senate").

That finding suggests a simple fix. "Requiring a candidate to deliver a tagline, but one that has no approval language," the researchers conclude, "may satisfy the goal of keeping voters informed about who is running ads, without ironically lending credibility to (negative) messages."

We'll see if Congress approves that message.