Do Negative Ads Work Better on Women?

A new study has found that women recall negative news stories better than men.

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In August, President Barack Obama's campaign released a two-and-a-half minute ad about Republican women who would be voting for him over Mitt Romney because of the GOP nominee's stances on abortion and contraceptive rights. For most of the ad, the women focus on what they perceive as Republicans' attacks on women, not Obama's support of them. According to a new report, it may have been the right move.

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Women are better at remembering negative news they've read, according to a study by the Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal. Though neither women nor men experienced a spike in cortisol—the so-called "stress hormone"—while reading the news, they experienced an increased stress reaction that men didn't when they were reminded of the news the next day or when they were faced with another stressful situation.

"Media exposure could increase stress reactivity and memory for negative news in women," the report, published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, says.

In the Obama ad, former Republican women say things such as "the Republican Party has gone too far to the right" and "there is no way on God's green Earth I would think about voting Republican." Meanwhile, very little time is spent espousing Obama's values in a positive light.

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Marie-France Marin, one of the researchers, says the effect was only seen if women were emotionally engaged in the subject. For example, a story about the plummeting jobs market might be strongly perceived as a negative story for an unemployed woman, while a comfortably employed woman might not react as strongly.

That means if a woman is particularly politically engaged or cares about issues such as abortion rights and contraceptive access, Obama's ad might be more effective at swaying those voters.

"If you don't care about the election, it probably won't touch you," Marin says. "But if it's a matter you care about and the ad is negative, it could have an impact."

Though Marin's research focused on written news, she says future studies will focus on whether the effect transfers to radio and television news, along with other forms of media. Marin has a "gut feeling" that it effect will transfer, and that having an image to go along with a story may make the reaction stronger.

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It also might mean more negative ads targeting women voters, who many pundits believe will end up deciding the election.

Outside of politics, Marin says more research is needed to determine if being constantly exposed to negative news is detrimental to womens' health.

"Obviously we can't avoid [negative] news and people want to be informed," Marin says. "But we're constantly being bombarded on Facebook, on Twitter, on our phones—and it's hard to find positive news...it could have an impact on your everyday life."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.