Change the Channel: Ads that Work for Women Candidates (2013)

Our past research has consistently shown that women candidates pay a higher price for going negative, even though all candidates must show how they differ from their opponents – it is a necessary part of campaigning. This qualitative research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation offers evidence-based guidance on how women can successfully contrast with their opponents without paying a higher price at the polls and updates the research looking at whether women still pay a higher price.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation worked with a bipartisan research team, led by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting, to focus specifically on how voters perceive negative ads by women candidates. In this study, we focused on the impact on the candidate, because we know this factor can be unique and greater for women candidates. Women have an advantage on honesty and ethics, and it is important for them to maintain that advantage, even when they are contrasting with their opponents.

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In addition to the work by Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting, we assembled a bipartisan group of professional media consultants to review our methodology and findings. This allows the research to be pragmatic for women candidates themselves and also vetted by the experts who will produce paid media advertisements.

Although it has long been believed that women candidates “going negative” in ads during a campaign works, but also increases their own negatives, there are key strategies women candidates can use that are more likely to resonate with voters. While we would caution that in every campaign there are unique circumstances, women candidates can and do have to use contrast ads to win.

Some of these tactics are not reserved for women only. However, voters remembered negative ads from women candidates more than negatives from male candidates, all other things being equal.


Key Findings

  1. It works for a woman candidate to represent herself in an ad. Voters react more favorably to a woman candidate confidently speaking for herself and her positions.
  2. Voters respond well to negative ads when they feel the negative message is subtle and is delivered by a real person, as opposed to the candidate.
  3. Flipping conventional wisdom on its head, voters appreciate humor from a woman in a negative ad. Humor also added an element of the unexpected, which helped voters remember the ad.
  4. Voters want to hear what a candidate will do for them. Voters respond more favorably to negative ads if the candidate offers them a positive message about her plans, in addition to contrasting with her opponent.
  5. Women voters, especially, want to see and hear from a woman candidate because they “hoped” and “expected” more from women candidates.
  6. The most convincing ads are those in which a real person shares his or her story. Voters feel this helps the candidate’s platform become more relatable and authentic and makes the negativity of the ad seem more subtle. This seems particularly powerful from women candidates whom voters believed would be more likely to bring the voice of real people to the dialogue and would be more in touch with real people’s lives.


Recording of 11.18.13 Webinar

Barbara Lee, Barbara Lee Family Foundation
Adrienne Kimmell, Barbara Lee Family Foundation
Celinda Lake, Lake Research Partners
Bob Carpenter, Chesapeake Beach Consulting
Jen Pihlaja, McKenna/Pihlaja
Nancy Bocskor, The Nancy Bocskor Co.