Are Political Attacks a Laughing Matter? Three Experiments on Political Humor and the Effectiveness of Negative Campaigning

Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211023590
Negative information is likely to matter for political judg-
ments about competing parties and candidates. A great
deal of evidence supports the existence of a “negativity
bias” (Hibbing, Smith, and Alford 2014), that is, the ten-
dency to be more attuned and to respond more strongly to
negatively valenced information (Rozin and Royzman
2001). Indeed, voters have been shown to base their deci-
sions more strongly on voting against given candidates
and parties (Jasperson and Fan 2002) in line with theories
of “negative partisanship” (Medeiros and Noël 2014).
Yet, the wealth of existing studies has up until now failed
to reach a consensus regarding the electoral effectiveness
of negative campaigning (Lau, Sigelman, and Rovner
2007; Nai and Walter 2015). Does going negative help
win elections? Do candidates that “go negative” against
their opponents gain an edge over them? We do not yet
fully understand to what extent negative messages have
the power to harm the target—as intended—or, instead,
“backfire” against the attacker and reduce its support in
the eyes of the voters. This “backlash effect” (Fridkin and
Kenney 2004; Roese and Sande 1993) is especially likely
to take place if voters perceive the attack as ungrounded,
inappropriate, or too outrageous for their taste, which is
quite frequent (Fridkin and Kenney 2011).
Under which conditions are attacks more likely to be
effective? Recent research suggests that this is a function
of individual differences, so that deeply rooted personal
characteristics of those exposed to negativity determine
the extent to which they perceive, process, and accept (or
discount) the persuasive messages. For instance,
Weinschenk and Panagopoulos (2014) show that negative
messages are more likely to decrease civic participation
in individuals who score high in agreeableness; in a simi-
lar fashion, Fridkin and Kenney (2011) argue that the
effects of negative messages depend on respondents’
“tolerance towards negativity,” whereas Nai and Otto
(2020) show that individuals scoring high on schaden-
freude are more likely to adjust their assessments of can-
didates after exposure to negative (vs. positive) messages.
All in all, these studies suggest that some individuals
might be more likely to be “seduced by negativity” than
others. Yet, it is not only differences in those exposed to
23590PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211023590Political Research QuarterlyVerhulsdonk et al.
1Independent Researcher, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
3Brunel University London, Uxbridge, UK
Corresponding Author:
Alessandro Nai, Amsterdam School of Communication Research,
University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1001 NG, The Netherlands.
Are Political Attacks a Laughing Matter?
Three Experiments on Political Humor
and the Effectiveness of Negative
Iris Verhulsdonk1, Alessandro Nai2, and Jeffrey A. Karp3
Research on the effectiveness of negative campaigning offers mixed results. Negative messages can sometimes work to
depress candidate evaluations, but they can also backfire against the attacker. In this article, we examine how humor can help
mitigate the unintended effects of negative campaigning using data from three experimental studies in the United States and
the Netherlands. Our results show that (1) political attacks combined with “other-deprecatory humor” (i.e., jokes against the
opponents) are less likely to backfire against the attacker and can even increase positive evaluations of this latter—especially
when the attack is perceived as amusing. At the same time and contrary to what we expected, (2) humor does not blunt the
attack: humorous attacks are not less effective against the target than serious attacks. All in all, these results suggest that humor
can be a good strategy for political attacks: jokes reduce harmful backlash effects against the attacker, and humoros attacks
remain just as effective as humorless ones. When in doubt, be funny. All data and materials are openly available for replication.
negative campaigning, political attacks, humor, experiment, USA, the Netherlands
2022, Vol. 75(3) 720–737
Verhulsdonk et al. 721
the messages that matter, as differences in the nature of
negative messages are also likely to determine their fate.
Much attention in this sense has been devoted to the dif-
ference between issue-based and person-based attacks
(e.g., Benoit and Harthcock 1999; Lau and Pomper 2001).
Attacks against the person or character of the rivals have
been shown to be more effective than issue attacks
(Brooks and Geer 2007), but are at the same time riskier
as they are more likely to backfire against the attacker
(Carraro, Gawronski, and Castelli 2010). Indeed, per-
sonal attacks are particularly disliked by the public, and
are more likely to depress participation and turnout than
policy attacks (Min 2004).
We focus on one characteristic of (negative) campaign
messages that has received little attention so far: the use of
political humor (Baumgartner and Morris 2012; Meyer
2000). Most of the research of humor in politics deals with
satire (Boukes et al. 2015; Compton 2012), spearheaded by
the popularity of shows such as Last Week Tonight, The
Daily Show, and Saturday Night Live (Becker 2012; Duffy
and Page 2013; Hoffman and Young 2011). In this sense,
most studies on political humor deal with humor about poli-
tics, while much less attention has been devoted to humor
within the political game itself—that is, the use of humor by
competing candidates while addressing each other, for
instance, in the context of an election campaign. Yet, politi-
cians themselves often make use of political humor and
know the value of it within the political discourse. Indeed,
it is a truism that humor is an effective tool for politicians to
either make themselves more accessible to the public or their
opponents less attractive, especially on television. In other
words, candidates are not simply the unwilling foils of the
mass media’s humor, but also may define themselves and
their opponents through the use of humor on the campaign
trail. (Stewart 2011, 202)
From the standpoint of competing candidates, “humor
can be used to define political concepts, to disarm critics,
to establish détente, to establish a position or make a point”
(Nilsen 1990, 35). Humor can also be used to express
opposition, signal political identification, and promote
civic support for a cause (Davis, Love, and Killen 2018)
and can be effective to change the topic of a debate, lighten
up the mood, or relieve anxiety (Bippus 2007). Like stand-
up comedians, politicians can also invoke an observable
audience response (OAR) that can consist of visual and/or
audible indicators such as laughter, applause, cheering, and
whistling (Wells and Bull 2007). In the context of a politi-
cal debate, the use of humor that invokes an audience
response can serve as an expression of support and approval
for a politician (Stewart 2015).1
Even when there is no audience to signal a reaction or to
spread laughter (Provine 2001), humor pervades politics.
Observers of the 2019 U.K. general election will have no
trouble remembering Boris Johnson’s “Love Actually”
spoof ad2 that asks the British public to give the
Conservatives a majority to get Brexit done—a rather
indicative example of humor in politics. While the previ-
ous example did not take aim at the Labour Party, there are
many examples of humor being used to attack political
opponents. Earlier that same year, leading up to the
European Union (EU) Parliamentary elections, Dutch
“Spitzenkandidat” Frans Timmermans was parodied in a
widely circulated spoof ad as the Eurocrat “Hans
Brusselmans.”3 In the United States, Donald Trump’s use
of nicknames for political adversaries such as “Pocahontas”
(Senator Elizabeth Warren), “Sleepy Joe” Biden, “Lyin
Ted” Cruz, and most famously “Crooked Hillary” Clinton
are examples of the use of humor to typecast political rivals
in memorable ways. An example of an amusing negative
campaign advertisement in a U.S. presidential campaign
aired in 2004. It was sponsored by President George W.
Bush and featured John Kerry windsurfing in different
directions, opening with the following question: “In which
direction would John Kerry lead?” and ends with, “John
Kerry: whichever way the wind blows.” The ad was suc-
cessful in portraying John Kerry as a flip-flopper, an image
that he could not escape from while also playing to the
notion that Kerry was an East Coast elitist.
Humor makes political messages more accessible to
an audience, because it “open[s] them to judgement that
they may otherwise be unwilling to accept” (Caufield
2008, 52), and thus good reasons exist to assess its effec-
tiveness as a persuasive campaign strategy. Yet only a
handful of studies have addressed the issue, and even
fewer have done so within the framework of competing
candidates attacking each other (for exceptions, see
Baumgartner 2013; Stewart 2011).
In this paper, we examine the role of humor in political
discourse. We focus specifically on the question of how
humor can be used in the context of negative attacks,
which as the discussion above suggests, carries some
risks. We use data from three original experiments carried
out in the Netherlands and the United States to examine
how statements that seek to undermine the integrity of a
political opponent, when combined with humor, can miti-
gate the risks associated with going negative. In this way,
humor can play an important role in political campaigns
in ways that have not been fully recognized.
Political Humor and the
Effectiveness of Negative
Can humor be used by politicians to reshape their competi-
tive standing in the eyes of the voters? That is, is humor a
useful way to enhance the effectiveness of political attacks?
Observing the behavior of Greek MPs, Tsakona (2009)

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