Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 4 : 10 October 2004

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.


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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai

"Party of Eunuchs, Elizabeth Taylor of Indian Politics,
Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar Inko Maro Jute Char," Etc.
A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.


Throughout history, politicians have used various methods, such as pamphlets, circulars, fliers, billboards, bumper stickers, or similar forms of written communication, whistle-stop speeches, and political rallies, to achieve their primary goal of winning votes. However, over the years, politicians have found that it is most advantageous to use political advertising to persuade voters. Because political advertising, unlike product advertising, endeavors to get results in a short period of time, political advertising becomes more aggressive in its approach.

Political practitioners use several kinds of aggressive political advertising strategies like image-building, and opponent's image-demolishing advertisements to achieve their goal. In political advertisements, opponent's image-demolishing advertisements fall under the category of negative advertising. Although there existed no rule against using political advertising, prior to the 1977 general election, candidates usually used issue or image ads at the beginning of a campaign to establish their positive image and then used negative ads at the end of the campaign to attack the opponent. However, in India, those strategies were abandoned in the post-emergency period.


A linguistic analysis of the political slogans used by various Indian political parties makes us believe that the significant trend in today's political advertising in India is the increasing use of negative political advertising. In modern day India, political leaders provide "opium" to the masses in abundant quantity through their negative comic verbal gimmickry.

In today's political campaigns, candidates, who may challenge the incumbent political party, use negative ads from the beginning of a political campaign. In the recently held general election to the Indian Parliament, negative political advertising reached such a "low" level that the Supreme Court of India hinted at making political mud-slinging as an electoral offence, if various political parties did not stop indulging in such an "undemocratic" activity.

During the hearing of an appeal, seeking a ban on the telecast of surrogate advertisements by different TV channels across the country, the Supreme Court warned that it would consider making slanderous advertisements an "electoral offence". The Court warned that If there was political mudslinging, it wouldl make it an electoral offence under the Representation of People Act. A Bench consisting of the Chief Justice V N Khare, and Justices S B Sinha and S H Kapadia directed the Election Commission (EC) to frame broad guidelines to stop the telecast of surrogate political advertisements on TV channels and cable networks within three days. EC's counsel K. K. Venugopal and S Murlidhar said that, in order to implement the orders of the Court, the Commission had to accomplish a huge task, considering there were 83 private channels, 33,000 cable operators, six national political parties, 45 regional ones, and 702 registered political parties.

Faced with the ticklish issue of monitoring political advertisements in the wake of the Supreme Court directive, the Election Commission favored clearance of all such ads by it before these were telecast or published. Observing that it would be difficult to monitor the political advertisements on the vast cable network and TV channels as directed by the Apex Court, the Commission decided to follow the above solution to tackle the issue. The entire episode simply indicated how negative the political advertising was in the 2004 general election.


A brief analysis of the language used during 2004 election campaigning reveals that calling names was an all-time favorite game of most of the Indian politicians in this election campaign. Whether it was the question of national identity of Sonia Gandhi (Videshi mool), or the age factor of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, their political opponents continued to engage in political mud-slinging in 2004. Even a cursory glance over these political remarks will give some idea about the intensive nature of mud-slinging

Pramod Mahajan of Bharatiya Janta Party nicknamed Sharad Pawar, the leader of National Congress Party, the Elizabeth Taylor of Indian Politics. Ball Thackerey called the Congress Party a Party of Eunuchs. Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party coined a vitriolic slogan Tilak, Tarazu Aur Talwar Inko Maro Jute Char (The three upper casts should be kicked).

Sharad Pawar, leader of the National Congress Party compared Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena to an emaciated tiger.

Laloo Prasad Yadav, the chief of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), known for his witty and earthy remarks, asked the RJD supporters at an election meeting in Chapra, Lathi utthavan, tel pilaavan, Bhaajpa bhaghaavan. "Take your lathis, oil them well and chase the BJP out."

During his campaign in Barh constituency, Laloo Prasad Yadav coined the slogan in his typical witty style Bahubali ko crore, dal badloo ko lakh, janata ko mila khaak, yehi hai sukhad ahsas (Crore to the muscle-man, lakh to political defector, nothing for people, this is the feel good factor).


A close look at these political remarks show that they are meant to communicate political truth (at least from the encoder's perspective), but the truth is negatively packaged, attacking the opponent's character and record rather than supporting one's own. If there is a single trend obvious in the recent Indian political advertising, it is the increasing proportion of negative political advertising. At least a third of all spot commercials in recent campaigns has been negative, and, in a minority of campaigns, half or more of the spots were negative in tone or substance.


It leads us to the question why do Indian political practitioners increasingly use negative political advertising now? Do they think negative ads are the most effective way to persuade voters in a short period of time in order to win an election than the positive political advertisings like:

1. Congress ka haath aam nagrik ke saath (Congress' hand, common man's hand).

2. Unke kaam aur balidaan, hamari disha, desh ka maan (Their work and sacrifice [referring to Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi], our vision, country's pride).

3. Desh ki aandhi, Sonia Gandhi.

4. Akshay Atal, vote kamal.

5. Vote Atal, vote kamal.

6. India is shinning (BJP).


Atal Behari Vajpayi

In the past five decades, during the Nehru-Indira era, India has seen a large number of wizards of the spoken word who have made not just audiences but the whole country dance to their tune. This tradition has been carried forward by Atal Behari Vajpayee in recent years. It can be said without even an iota of doubt that there is no one in the present political scenario who can match Atal Bihari's oratory in the Hindi heartland.


Likewise, who can match Karunanidhi's oratory skills among the Tamils? These leaders can wield their respective languages in such a way that millions could be easily swayed by their rhetoric. Their wit, sarcasm, analysis, and pun on the word in delivering their speech are some of the techniques that will always be remembered and relished.


However, a new generation of consumers of political advertising, who do not have the 'freedom struggle hangover' demands something new and different. The political parties recognize the changing consumer -- and capitalizes on the wave started by political leaders like Pramod Mahajan, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Bal Thakerey, Mayawati, and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The senior political leaders possibly lost the opportunity of re-engineering their rhetoric brand.

The new generation of political practitioners developed a new strategy to attack and demolish the image of their opponents. The new generation of Indian political leaders seems to believes that negative advertising is more effective in terms of information than positive advertising.

Researchers in a study of negativity in political perception, agreed with political leaders and indicated that "the tendency for negative information to have more weight than equally extreme or equally likely positive information appears in a variety of cognitive processing tasks."


The growth of negative political advertising has drawn the attention of numerous researchers. Most research has tried to find its effectiveness on "cognitive, and affective components of voters responses," but the results of the research are inconsistent. While some research supports the use of negative advertising, others assert that attack politics evokes a boomerang effect. Hence, I chose to present this study on two different persuasive theories: Expectancy theory and Cognitive response theory. These theories show concern for the effectiveness of negative political advertising.


In Expectancy theory, the relationship between language use and the effectiveness of such language use on persuasion is highlighted. Expectancy theory assumes that "since language is a rule-governed system, people develop norms and expectations concerning appropriate usage in given situations." Most cultures and societies shape their own patterns of language and determine normative or non-normative patterns of language use. When messages conform to people's norms and expectations, "the norms and expectations are strengthened, but the messages exert minimal impact on attitudes." On the other hand, when "communicators, intentionally or accidentally, violate norms governing appropriate language usage," they violate "the expectations of message receivers, and, in turn, affect their receptivity." If messages violate people's norms and expectations, they can have more or less persuasive effects, depending on the circumstances.


The theory identifies two violations: positive or negative violation. In regard to the persuasion effects, the theory assumes that when messages positively violate people's linguistic expectations, the violation has a positive impact toward people's attitudes and evokes persuasive effectiveness. In contrast, when messages negatively violate people's linguistic expectations, "a boomerang effect occurs, with receivers changing to the position opposite to the one advocated by the communicator. To elaborate the point further, we may cite the example of Laloo Prasad's speech at Chapara. His witty and earthy but negative remark Lathi utthavan, tel pilaavan, Bhaajpa bhaghaavan (Take your lathis, oil them wel,l and chase the BJP out) might have gone positively with Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supporters because of it's amusing comic effect.

The question that one needs to ask here is; how does a political practitioner manipulate the verbal resources available to him to project an attitude, to evoke a feeling to create a particular telling effect and to achieve a total effect. If there is no basic inherent difference between language of politics and common language, how does a political practitioner generate heat and emotion by using negative political advertising?


Based on the theory, it can be assumed that voters have normative expectations about negative political advertising because such advertising is one of the most common genres in today's politics, and, as a result, voters have been exposed to numerous negative ads. Because most negative ads have been employed to attack the opponent's image or issues, people may expect negative political ads to have standard formats and intense messages. If negative political ads conform to people's normative expectations, expectancy theory defines it as a negative violation and predicts that it evokes negative effects toward the sponsor.


On the other hand, the cognitive response model assumes that when people are exposed to a message, they have psychological processes that determine the impact of the message. Wright asserted that three distinct responses are identified in the psychological process of a message acceptance: counterargument, source derogation, and support argument. In the negative political advertising context, counterargument occurs when voters attempt to defend the target. When counterargument is activated, receivers would neutralize the message to reduce the discrepancy. Source derogation involves "negative images of the sponsor ("He is a mudslinger") or of the message ("It is misrepresentation")." Support argument involves "negative images of the target ("He is indeed that bad")."


Sonia Gandhi

The present study conducted an analysis of the cognitive responses generated by negative political advertising on the Videshi mool of Sonia Gandhi and found that negative political advertising produced significantly more counterarguments, source derogations, and negative ad-related statements, but fewer support arguments and positive ad-related statements.

The study arrived at a conclusion that "since negative advertising is a variant of comparative advertising, [the] findings of product-related effects of comparative advertising suggest parallel effects for negative advertising."

Research on the impact of negative political advertising also supported the results of the present study. For example, Garramone found that negative political advertising evokes source derogations. Wright also asserted that "source derogation is a more frequent response to dissonance than counterargument in situations where the source might be assumed biased."

Therefore, it can be expected that negative political advertising would be likely to produce source derogations, in turn, causing harmful effects toward the sponsor. According to Basil et. al., the counterproductive aspects of negative political advertising "may arise from the fact that negative advertisements are rated as 'effective' because the message itself is remembered, but 'ineffective' because the candidate sponsoring the ad is harmed."

Persuasion research indicates that the more credible a source, the more persuasive the message is. Thus, the more truthful a negative political advertising is perceived, the greater should be its impact.

Unfortunately, during the present study, it was observed that although academic researchers have found that negative political ads cause a backlash effect, political consultants believe otherwise.


To support the general observations of the theories mentioned above, the present study investigated the effectiveness of negative political advertising. Survey method was used to collect desired data, and four graduate students of Jaiprakash Narayan University, Chapra ( Bihar) were employed as interviewers. Before conducting an actual survey, the interviewers were trained to understand the purpose of the present study and the contents of the questionnaire.

During two weeks of April 2004, 300 interviews with randomly selected residents of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were completed.


Is Negative Political Advertising informative?

The figures presented in Table 1, indicate that only 15 percent of the total respondents evaluated negative political advertising as informative, while 80.0 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that negative political advertising is informative, and 05% percent said that they were neutral.

Thus, it can be inferred that the overwhelming response to informative aspect of negative political advertising was negative. It shows that the hypothesis that Negative Political Advertising is informative was not supported by the respondents.

Table 1

Frequency Percent

Strongly Agree 45 15.0%

Strongly Disagree 240 80.0%

Neutral 15 5.0%

Total 300 100%


Is Negative Advertising truthful and believable?

As can be seen from Table 2, almost eighty five percent of the total respondents evaluated negative political advertising as unbelievable, while only 5.0 percent agreed that such advertising is believable. Fifty five percent of the respondents were neutral, and the overall mean score was 3.48. Thus, the hypothesis was strongly rejected

Table 2

Frequency Percent

Strongly Agree 15 5.0%

Strongly Disagree 120 40.0%

Neutral 165 55.0%

Total 300 100%


Does Negative Advertising produce Negative Impact?

To test hypothesis 3 that negative political advertising will produce a negative impact on attitudes toward both the sponsor and the target, descriptive analyses were conducted.

As Tables 3 and 4 indicate, more than half of the respondents expressed negative attitudes toward both the sponsor and the target, while less than 30 percent expressed positive attitudes toward both candidates. Of respondents, 14.1 percent had neutral -attitudes toward the sponsor, and 23.3 percent had neutral attitudes toward the target. As predicted, hypothesis 3, therefore, is supported.

Based on the political advertisement how do you feel about the sponsor?

Table 3

Frequency Percent

Positive 90 30.0%

Negative 135 45.0%

Neutral 75 25.0%

Total 300 100%


Table 4

Based on the political advertisement how do you feel about the political leader who is attacked in this advertisement

Frequency Percent

Positive 165 55.0%

Negative 90 30.0%

Neutral 45 15.0%

Total 300 100%


The present study investigated the effectiveness of negative political advertising in terms of informativeness, believability, and attitudes toward both the sponsor and the target. Before discussing the results of the present study, it should be noted, "it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of political [advertising]." As scholars have asserted, because many things happen simultaneously in a real election, "it is difficult to isolate the impact of political advertising." The present study, however, revealed many interesting effects of negative political advertising.

The findings suggest that negative political advertising was perceived as uninformative. However, this seems contrary to the previous research, which measured information levels and political practitioners' claims concerning negative information.

As expected, negative political advertising was perceived as untruthful, and perceived truthfulness was positively related to favorable attitudes toward the sponsor and negatively related to favorable attitudes toward the target.

Although the perceived truthfulness of negative political advertising was as expected, a minority of the respondents perceived such ads to be true. Overall, negative political advertising produced negative evaluations of both the sponsor and the target. Those effects are consistent with the findings of the previous research. As scholars have noted, such a negative effect might be related to the respondents' overall attitudes toward negative political advertising, revealing that more than half of them expressed disapproval of using such ads.


As mentioned above, although decisive conclusions are not drawn to determine the impact of negative political advertising, the findings of the present study have implications for politicians, political consultants, and advertising agencies. The findings raise doubts about using negative political advertising in a political campaign. Scholars noted that respondents' negative attitudes toward both candidates and their overall disapproval of negative political advertising resulted from the increasing use of negative political advertising during the 80's general elections, producing cynicism toward politics and declining political participation.

Because negative political advertising that identifies the sponsor and the target hurts both candidates, when a candidate uses such advertising, it would be better not to identify the sponsor and therefore political parties take the help of surrogate advertising. In the recent general election, some political parties requested a ban on the telecast of surrogate advertisements by different TV channels. It should be noted, however, that even the existing law requires that the sponsor be identified. Failure to faithfully report on the sposor is the crux of the problem. Supreme Court of India also pointed this out and hinted at making political mud-slinging as an electoral offence.


The present study observed that Indian voters with low educational background were more influenced by negative political advertising and had more positive attitudes toward the sponsor than the voters with better educational background. But, these findings were not strongly supported in the present study. The findings of the present study indicated that there was some significant difference in evaluating informativeness, believability, and attitudes toward the sponsor and the target between less educated and better educated. Though, both less educated and better educated, in general, considered negative political advertising as uninformative and unbelievable, and had negative attitudes toward both the sponsor and the target, the less educated had more positive attitude toward the negative advertising.


There were no significant gender differences in evaluating informativeness and believability of negative political advertising. But, interestingly, in terms of attitudes toward candidates, women were more negative toward the sponsor of the negative advertising than were men.

The findings suggested that although both younger and older people agreed that negative political advertising is not informative, older people consider negative political advertising as less believable and have more negative attitudes toward the sponsor than younger people.


Negative political advertising would be effective with lower income level people. They perceived negative political advertising as more informative and more believable and had more positive attitudes toward the sponsor than higher income level people.


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A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

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