Why the Anti-Obamacare Ad Blitz May Have Backfired

Photograph by Gallery Stock

Earlier this week an analyst at the Brookings Institution named Niam Yaraghi wrote a blog post that cross-referenced spending on anti-Obamacare commercials with the number of people who, state-by-state, signed up for the program. As Yaraghi points out, this election cycle has featured an enormous amount of spending on Obamacare-related ads, and he cites a Kantar Media study showing that negative ad spending (on spots like this) overwhelmed positive ad spending by a ratio of 15 to 1. But rather than drive people away from the new health exchanges, Yaraghi found that, in blue states at least, higher per capita anti-Obamacare ad spending actually correlated with slightly higher Obamacare enrollment. Yaraghi defines blue states in his analysis as states with Democratic senators running for reelection this year. Those states, especially ones with competitive races, have seen lots of talk (and ads) about Obamacare.

The finding has been the subject of understandable gloating in the liberal blogosphere. And while it may be a slight stretch to call a data-crunching blog post a study, as many have, it raises an intriguing possibility: that a public-relations onslaught meant to make the new law look dangerous, ineffective, and/or invasive actually made it seem like something people might want to try.

To psychologists who study how people process information, this is not shocking. One of the findings of the field is that when people are presented with a message, their perception of the valence of that message—whether it’s positive or negative—is strikingly mutable. We remember that we saw an ad or read a review of something, but, especially over time, we’re less likely to remember if the ad was pro or con, or whether the review was a rave or a pan. A 2010 paper by Jonah Berger, Alan Sorensen, and Scott Rasmussen, for example, found that, for books by lesser-known authors, negative book reviews in the New York Times actually increased sales. And if there was a time lag between when the test subjects read a negative review and when they decided on purchasing the book, a negative review made them just as likely to buy the book as a positive one. A 2005 paper by Ian Skurnik, Carolyn Yoon, Denise Park, and Norbert Schwarz found that, with older adults, the more times they were told a particular claim was false, the more likely they were, three days later, to remember it as true.

This tendency may be tied to something called the “mere exposure effect.” The psychologist Robert Zajonc, who discovered the effect in the 1960s, found that people preferred the images of certain faces over others, or certain made-up words or abstract symbols over others, simply if they had seen them before. We like things that feel familiar, even if we can’t remember why they feel familiar—and even, apparently, if the reason they feel familiar is because we’ve seen lots and lots of ads bashing them. For obscure books, for national health-care laws, even for lies, there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.