Short and Negative: The Future of Party Election Broadcasts?

An Investigation into the Americanisation of British Campaign Advertising

By Samuel Coop, Charlotte Eva, Huw Happs, Eleanor Healy, Georgia Roulston and Edward Williams


Political advertising and election campaigns are constantly evolving. In the UK, party election broadcasts (PEBs) have reduced in length from 10 minutes to between 2 minutes and 40 seconds and 4 minutes and 40 seconds. In the lead up to the 2015 General Election, the Conservative Party have released a number of short, American-style advertisements on YouTube that have varying degrees of negativity. The existing literature surrounding political advertising and election campaigns is predominantly focused on the effects on turnout, voter engagement and political efficacy. This paper investigates the impact of American-style advertising on a British audience, regarding variables such as intention to vote, the perception of PEBs, and how much information (memory recollection) can be retained after viewing a PEB. We conducted our experimental research by showing groups PEBs of different lengths and tone. All participants completed a post-PEB survey. Whilst our results did not confirm with all four of our hypotheses, our investigation did identify a number of interesting potential trends that should be researched further on a larger scale.


Within the area of negativity in political advertising, much of the existing literature and research is based on turnout. For example how the individual receives a negative advertisement against their own party and whether this impacts their opinion of each party and furthermore their vote. This research was stimulated by the recent movement of British political advertising towards short and negative advertisements and away from the traditionally longer Party Election Broadcasts (PEBs) (van-Heerde-Hudson, 2011).

“Yes, it fouls the public space. It brings Britain closer to American levels of political rancour. We may not have partisan television channels but, in social media, left and right already wallow in their own ghettos of certainty” (Ganesh, 2015). PEBs were at one stage 10 minutes long. Now they are between 4 minutes and 40 seconds and 2 minutes and 40 seconds in length. Not only are PEBs becoming shorter, they are also becoming more Americanised, placing an emphasis on negativity, often with personal attacks on party leaders. Currently, 30 second advertisements would be illegal in the UK as they are against Electoral Commission rules however there are no restrictions on parties sharing them via internet channels such as YouTube. This research examines the potential impact of more Americanised political communication in British elections, particularly focusing on the perceptions of the PEBs and how they are altered. We look at how the viewer’s memory, intention to vote and reason behind voting are influenced by varying the length, tone and amount of information within the advertisement. This research is important because short and negative political advertising has been blamed for lowering turnout in US elections (Ansolabehere and Iyengar, 1995), widening the gaps in political knowledge (Stevens, 2005) and damaging democratic process and democracy on the whole.

Literature Review

Generally, there appears to be a lack of academic studies on the effects of political advertising in the UK. There have however been quite a number of studies that focus on US and so this data can be applied to the UK in order to make predictions on how the public would respond to this style of advertising. The Conservative Party has begun to deploy American-style advertisements through channels such as YouTube (Riley-Smith, 2015). This development in advertising increases the importance of researching the effects of American-style advertising in Britain.

While the majority of research into the effects of negative advertising focuses on the US, there are some studies have been carried out in Britain. Most of these are in response to the accusation that there has been a trend of increasing Americanisation in PEBs (Electoral Commission, 2001; Hodess, Tedesco and Kaid, 2000). A review into party political broadcasting by the Electoral Commission (2001: 27) found that the 2001 general election “saw an increase in the use of negative broadcasts, particularly by the main parties”, and this was echoed by Hodess, Tedesco and Kaid (2000) whose content analysis of PEBs from the 1992 and 1997 general elections showed that PEBs were increasingly professionalized, Americanised and negative. The rise of negativity is represented by the fact that by the 1997 election, 100 per cent of PEBs contained some form of attack (Hodess, Tedesco and Kaid, 2000: 61). Other research also finds this rise in negativity although not to the same extent. VanHeerde-Hudson (2011) finds no clear evidence of an absolute rise in negativity however she suggests that PEBs are going negative more frequently on the issues. As found by many researchers, negativity allows voters to make more informed choices than positivity (Freedman, Wood and Lawton, 1999; Jamieson, 2000; Stevens et al., 2008), and so she does not consider this negativity necessarily detrimental as issue appeals are used “more than any other type of appeal” in PEBs (vanHeerde-Hudson, 2011: 63) which means a rise in negativity could lead to a more informed public. Overall, there is very little research on the content of British PEBs yet the existing literature suggests an increasing negativity and Americanisation of advertisements.

Most of the literature available focuses on the effects of negative advertisements on vote intention however it remains mostly inconclusive as there are many variables that can affect the outcomes. Conclusions on the impact of going negative “are multifaceted, and under some circumstances, substantial” (Fridkin and Kenney, 2011). Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995: 110) led the initial debate on the relationship between negative advertisements and turnout, suggesting that negativity turns viewers off voting by an “astounding” 11 per cent. Later research established that different types of negativity do not have uniform effects – it is specifically mudslinging and personal attacks that turn voters off (Freedman, Wood and Lawton, 1999; Fridkin and Kenney, 2011; Kahn and Kenney, 1999; Stevens et al., 2008). Following the conclusions that PEBs are becoming more negative in the UK, it is expected that it would impact vote intention in some way however there is little evidence to show this. Sanders and Norris (2005: 533) used an experimental design to discover if PEBs in 2001 affected the party preferences of viewers and did not find any evidence of it. However they recognise that there were weaknesses in the research design and therefore more research is needed. Therefore evidence from the US suggesting going negative would affect the vote intention and political knowledge of the viewers is still the foundation of research in the UK.

Public perceptions of PEBs are not widely studied however other research on the evolution of political communication in the UK and the US suggests possible conclusions. Perceptions of advertisements will vary greatly from person to person depending on their partisan and ideological leanings (Freedman, Wood and Lawton, 1999; Stevens et al., 2008). These studies were conducted in order to determine how partisanship affects perceptions of negativity in advertisements and they find that “standards of fairness are not immutable principles that are even-handedly applied” (Stevens et al., 2008: 536). Extrapolating from these conclusions, it would follow that perceptions of the importance of PEBs and the levels of negativity would vary in the UK depending on partisan loyalties.

Currently, the British public does not have a favourable opinion of political communication, as the informative PEBs make few attempts “to engage audience interest though use of genre or innovative narrative structure” (Scammell and Langer, 2006: 781). Street (2003: 96) argues that “cool politics” in Britain is on the rise and it is increasingly “cool” to be disillusioned and dissatisfied with politics. This is supported by Electoral Commission (2001: 27) findings that even the shortest PEBs “are still considered too long by many”. In response to the public’s view of political communication being boring, parties may try to modernise by shortening them to resemble commercial advertisements in order to engage the public (Kern, 1989: 207).

Finally, research conducted into the memory recall of advertising has mixed results, with some studies finding that positive advertisements are more frequently remembered (Basil, Schooler and Reeves, 1991; Hitchon and Chang 1995), and others that negative appeals are more memorable (Bradley, Angelini and Lee, 2006; Brader, 2005; Geer and Geer, 2003). Interestingly, the studies that find memory recall to be higher for negative advertisements also find that participants’ memories are more often incorrect with regard to negativity content (Bradley, Angelini and Lee, 2005: 124; Geer and Geer, 2003: 82). Although Geer and Geer’s results are not definitive, the findings suggest that while the introduction of American-style PEBs in the UK might engage the public, it could result in a less informed public.


H1: Viewers of the shortened PEB would judge it to be too short, and judge the normal length PEBs as too long.

H2: PEBs would be perceived as important parts of British political campaigns.

There was division with the academics and so there are two possible predictions for the effect of longer or shorter PEBs on memory recall:

H3a: Memory recall would be higher in the short PEB groups as there was less information to remember.

H3b: Memory recall would be higher in the long PEB groups due to there being more things that could potentially be recalled.

H4: Voter intention would be consistent across all experimental groups.


Using small groups of students with an average age of 18, and a total sample size of 88 we randomly assigned which of the election broadcasts each group would view. It is important to note that the sizes of the groups – and sample size overall – is not large enough to draw wholly statistically significant findings from our multifaceted research investigation.

One of four different PEBs could be shown to the groups. Two were original PEBs from either the Conservative or the Labour party. The other two were altered versions of the original PEBs. They were shorter in length and more negative in tone. The original PEBs were 4 minutes and 20 seconds and 3 minutes and 3 seconds, for the Labour and the Conservative party respectively. The shorter American-style PEBs were both 1 minute and 7 seconds long. These were designed to be quicker, snappier and more aggressively targeted at the other political party.  These were created to result in better and more thorough memory recall, while also increasing the propensity to vote of the individuals surveyed. The respondents who were shown the PEB were asked to watch it and then respond to the survey accordingly. We also included a numerical question to examine the degree of negativity that the respondent felt towards the PEB. This was intended to show us if a higher level of negativity would cause changes in participant vote intention.

To create a sense of continuity, we also included a short extract from the end of a BBC news report at the start of the screening, the contents of which are irrelevant to the experiment but the section was included and kept the same for control purposes.

No questions were asked before or after the screening, but it is clear from some of the written memory feedback that a handful of respondents could see the editing cuts in the shorter PEBs. This could suggest that some respondents were aware of its manufactured nature. However, generally speaking it appears that the respondents were responsive to the adjusted advertisement. This was a limitation in our experiment that could have been rectified with more time and precision video editing equipment.

A final group was not shown a PEB and was instead given a slightly altered survey. This group was used as a control to allow us to cross-reference our results. This enabled us to see if, on the whole, there is a change in the propensity to vote in the treatment condition and to ascertain any other information regarding the opinions of students relating to PEBs more generally.

We used a combination of paper surveys and online surveys. Participants who had access to the internet via phone, laptop or tablet completed the survey on LimeSurvey. Completed paper surveys were later inputted into LimeSurvey manually.

Our question on memory recollection required respondents to list everything that they remembered from the PEB they viewed. We coded this by counting the number of different recollections they made as opposed to analysing what they recalled. Comments about the BBC news report were discounted.

We coded our information from LimeSurvey into SPSS in order to cross-tabulate and analyse the data, as well as to produce levels of statistical significance. This was successful and allowed us to correctly interpret our results, compare them to our hypotheses, apply them to a wider context and draw accurate conclusions from our research.

Some drawbacks of our experiment were our reliance on technology, which on two occasions prevented us from performing the experiment. Moreover the questions in the survey could have been refined, as very early into the experimental stage we found that we failed to recognise the diversity of nationalities at the university, and as a result some of the respondents could not truthfully answer questions relating to UK elections or political parties. This oversight may have been rectified by using focus groups in conjunction or as an alternative to the more ‘black and white’ nature of survey questionnaires. This therefore should be corrected in future studies of this nature.

Overall, our methods and applications proved to be successful. We conducted ambitious research that on a larger scale would have garnered more statistical significance and therefore more generalisability. This does not however, subtract from the relevance of our investigation and the potential for further research.

Data Analysis

In regards to the length of the PEBs shown, it was predicted that viewers of the shortened PEB would judge it to be too short, and this was the case amongst viewers of the Labour party PEB while a sizable portion of the short Conservative PEB (44%) identified the PEB as being not long enough. Although a substantial amount of short PEB participants concurred with our hypothesis, we expected the results to be more definitive. Results from our normal length PEB are more conclusive, however. It was hypothesised that in reverse of the results seen from the shorter PEBs, the participants that viewed the longer PEB would find it to be too long. This wasn’t the case amongst our results. Both participants in the Labour and Conservative groups found the PEBs to be of the right length. What our results did find, was that a substantial proportion (a majority in the normal length PEBs) of respondents in all four groups stipulated that the PEB was of a good length. This result was contrary to our predictions.

Table 1: Length of PEB? (%)

Short PEB Normal Length PEB
Labour Conservative Labour Conservative
Too long 0 8 39 21
Right length 43 47 62 71
Too short 57 44 0 7
N 14 36 13 14

Chi2 = .00

Table 2: Are PEBs important? (%)

Short PEB Normal Length PEB
Control Labour Conservative Labour Conservative
Yes 100 57 75 100 86
No 0 43 25 0 14
N 11 14 36 13 14

Chi2 = .02

Before our experiment, it was predicted that participants would view PEBs as important, and this evident from our results. Table 2 shows that the control group and both normal length PEB groups overwhelmingly judged PEBs to be important in election campaigns. Interestingly, respondents from both shorter PEB groups still had a majority reporting that PEBs are important, but a smaller majority than the long PEBs. This is particularly evident in the Labour group, in which ‘Yes’ was only a small majority. Potential reasons for this will be identified in the discussion section. The results in this area are also statistically significant, with Chi2 values of .00 and .02 for PEB length and PEB importance respectively.

Memory recall is central to any advertisement or PEB. It is essential that the audience finds what they have viewed to be memorable. Therefore, any difference to memory recall is critical to an investigation into the viability of American style 30-second political advertisements in a British political environment. Our results indicated that although there was more information to recall in a longer PEB than a shorter PEB, both treatment conditions resulted in a similar number of items recalled (see table 3). There are two conclusions to be drawn from this, the first is that given the short PEBs contained less information, the proportion of recalled items to total items is higher among the short PEBs, indicating that short PEBs are a more effective method of conveying information. The second is that short PEBs appear to convey the same amount of information in shorter airtime and therefore are a more efficient method of conveying information.

Table 3: Recall of PEB (%)

Short PEB Normal Length PEB
Labour Conservative Labour Conservative
0-2 items 36 22 15 7
3 items 7 17 31 14
4 items 43 33 23 43
5+ items 14 28 31 36
N 14 36 13 14

Chi2 = .57


Another factor that alludes to the perception of PEBs is the impact that viewing various PEBs had on voter intention, and our results indicated that shortening PEBs has no decisive impact on voting intention. This appears to indicate that shorter PEBs are not an effective way of engaging the public with the political process. However it is important to note that these results are not statistically significant and that there is evidence that surveys about vote intention can be affected by social desirability bias and therefore these results cannot be considered conclusive.


Upon the completion of our experiment and the collection of our results, it became evident that much of our findings lacked statistical significance. Our experiment was not large enough or sophisticated enough to garner the appropriate statistical significance and validity. Our experiment does however, have substantial social and political pertinence; our research has identified a gap in the discourse surrounding PEBs, political advertisements and political campaigns. An investigation into the potential effectiveness and salience of American style 30-second campaign advertisements on the British electorate should be undertaken on a larger scale by established researchers with more resources at their disposal.

There a number of interesting points that should be discussed from our findings in the meanwhile. Our results from table 1 would suggest that audience members are generally satisfied with the length of PEBs, be it longer or shorter. There is notably less satisfaction with the length of the shorter PEBs, however. Due to this, it would be our recommendation that any shortening of PEBs should be a slow process, as opposed to an overnight transition to 30-second American style advertisements. This would also concur with the trend of shortening PEBs in length over time that has seen PEBs cut from around 10 minutes in length to their current duration of 2-4 minutes. This development would only be necessary if further research proves shorter PEBs to be more popular and more effective.

The results from table 2 suggest people tend to view shorter style PEBs are less important to political campaigns, and therefore less effective. This opinion juxtaposes the notion that PEBs should be shortened in order to make political advertisements more captivating and relevant to audience members. It could be argued that due to the nature and opinion of the British Electorate and the apparent differences between voters in the UK and the US, that British audience members find shorter PEBs more trivial because they more closely resemble an average advertisement. The results from table 2 bring up a discussion over the viability of American style advertisements in the UK; will they ever work? Can this argument be extended to political advertisements too?

Perhaps the most important and politically relevant element of our research is our investigation into memory recall, found in table 3. Although these results appear to refute a theory by Scullion and Dermody (2005), that British voters will not engage with attack-style advertisements because they are not policy focused, these results are not statistically significant and the scope of this study is not broad enough to strongly support these suggestions. Also, during the editing of the PEBs some information was removed in order to make them more negative which resulted in the normal length PEBs having more to remember. This could have influenced our results. However, this information remains salient as it has implications for British political parties – if shorter PEBs convey more items of information relative to airtime than long PEBs, then this may be a more cost-effective way for parties to conduct their campaigns.


In conclusion, our research was an ambitious investigation into an under-researched nuance within the extensive academic discourse surrounding political advertising. Although some of our findings lacked statistical significance, they are undoubtedly relevant to the literature. Our research provides a strong foundation for further investigation into the Americanisation of political advertising in the UK and what that might mean for both the general public and the future of British elections. As previously stated, the Conservatives’ use of short and negative advertisements on YouTube prior to the 2015 General Election has introduced forms of advertising not previously seen in British politics. This works in conjunction with the introduction of Prime Ministerial debates in the 2010 General Election to support the view that British campaigns are becoming more Americanised in nature. Furthermore, this highlights the importance of the discourse surrounding the evolution of British political advertising and validates the necessity of further research.

Our investigation was born out of the idea that political advertising in the UK is traditionally considered to be dull and not engaging the public. We therefore conclude that if American style PEBs became mainstream (as they threaten to do considering the trend in recent elections) then audiences would become more engaged in politics due to higher levels of memory retention and increased political knowledge. This could lead to an increased importance of election cycles and campaigns. However, and contrary to this, some of our results suggest that shorter style PEBs would not be more appealing or relevant to British audiences. We found that audiences are generally satisfied with the length of PEBs and there is less approval of shorter broadcasts. This is possibly because audiences find them more trivial and closer in tone to an average television advertisement rather than a serious political broadcast. We also found that the shorter the broadcast, the less important it was viewed as being to the political campaign as a whole, thereby undermining its effectiveness. Again, our multifaceted conclusions aid the identification of the necessity of further research.

Our investigation could become part of a discourse that has pertinent political and social implications. Political engagement, electoral turnout and public opinion of both politicians and politics on the whole are salient issues that need to be addressed. Although this paper is the first of hopefully many pieces of academia on the subject of the Americanisation of political campaigning and advertising in the UK, it successfully opens multiple avenues for the progression of the discourse to reach to a point where it can actively influence the practical development of political advertising and election campaigns in the UK.


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Online Sources

Riley-Smith, B. (2015) ‘General Election 2015: Tories hit had with YouTube attack advertisements’, The Telegraph, [Online], Available: [Accessed on: 11 March 2015]

Ganesh, J. (2015) ‘We are all impoverished by the politics of negativity’, Financial Times, [Online], Available at: [Accessed: 18 March 2015].


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