Gender-based Political Attack Ads

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Negative political advertising is nothing new to the 21st century; however, when gender becomes a factor, negative advertising can affect a candidate’s chance of being elected. All of America is aware of negative ads during times of intense campaigning; yet, as a nation, is anyone aware of its bias categorization of gender? For instance, political campaigning can be more difficult for female politicians due to the bad reputation given to women within positions of power. The symbol of power, money and control is stereotypically associated with a dominant male figure, leaving little room for imperfections within a female’s political campaign. Any shortcoming, such as negative ads that paint a politician in a skewed manner, hit women much harder than men, according to the media as well as the research.

As in the case of Pam Wolf, a candidate for state senator of Minnesota, the negative campaign ads identified her as having a weak voice due to the fact that an influx of negative ads overpowered Wolf’s own voice. According to the article, “voters had no idea who [Wolf] really was,” due to the constant skewing of information that was meant to mislead listeners and viewers (Brucato, 2012). One ad in particular targeted women stating, “Minnesota women can’t trust Pam Wolf,” while another ad stated, “Pam Wolf isn’t the leader we expected,” (Brucato, 2012). In addition to malicious and untruthful campaign messages, Wolf was also painted in a despairing light by her competitors. The physical picture that was used by those who ran against Wolf was one that showed an unattractive, uncouth woman who looked angry and despairing rather than powerful and capable.

The research used a variation of subjects to determine how respondents would rate a candidate who was portrayed negatively in an ad and how the respondents would rate the sponsor of the ad, depending on both the candidate and sponsor’s gender. Subjects were able to listen to a series of four radio spot ads that only varied in naming the sponsor and the candidate, meaning no faces were shown and only names were heard (Dinzes,1994). Relying on strictly auditory information, the experiment tested whether the negative ad affected the subjects’ likelihood to vote for a candidate, based on the candidate or sponsor’s gender. In conclusion, respondents rated the sponsor’s of the negative ads on a high scale, meaning they were more likely to vote for the sponsor if the ads were attacking a candidate of a differing gender.

According to Brannon (2011), benevolent sexism could be the main concern in this proposed experimental research as well as the media portrayal. The media follows closely to the research symbolizing how others’ opinions on women as professional candidates can be easily manipulated.  However, the research differs slightly from the media in that not one, specified gender is highlighted in a negative way; only opposing genders can cause a voter to be more likely to vote for the ad’s sponsor.  

The operation definition was achieved through the subject’s perception of the candidate after the ad was heard. According to the experimental data only the names of the candidates and sponsors were changed while the negative ads remained the same for each of the four radio spot ads. Results were based on the subject’s attitude and likelihood to support the candidate or the sponsor of the ad, proving that attack ads can be productive if the two genders of the sponsor and the candidate differ. The hypothesis stated that gender played a role in attack ads, yet the experiment itself proved the truth behind this predetermined role.




Reference List

Brannon, L. (2011). Gender, psychological perspectives. (6 ed.). Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

Brucato, C. (2012, November 19). Attack ads from super-sized outside groups frustrate 'outspent' legislative candidates. Minnesota Post. Retrieved from

Dinzes, D., Cozzens, M. D., & Manross, G. G. (1994). The role of gender in 'attack ads': Revisiting negative political advertising. Communication Research Reports, 11(1), 67-75. doi: 10.1080/08824099409359942.