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The Absolute Scariest Thing About Negative Political Advertising

By July 6, 2012June 26th, 2015In The News
The Absolute Scariest Thing About Negative Political Advertising

I can’t stand negative political advertising. I can’t stand the distortions of the truth. The overly dramatic exaggerations. The flat out lies. The bitterness and divisiveness. Research shows that the vast majority of Americans agree with me.

But the deception isn’t the scariest thing about negative political advertising.

What happened to the notion that effective marketing solves problems? Political ads that are 100% negative attacks don’t offer any solutions to our problems. And right now, our country has its fair share of problems.

But the failure to solve problems isn’t the scariest thing about negative political advertising.

Much like hurricane season, we’re already waist deep in political ad season in a presidential election year. If you thought the Republican primary fight got ugly, just wait. Between now and November 6, as we’re pounded mercilessly with wave after wave of negative ads, I’m confident that this contest will descend into an abyss of never-before-seen hideousness.

Thanks to an influx of Super PAC money, the hurricane will likely become a tsunami. A barrage of tsunamis.

But the sheer volume isn’t the scariest thing about negative political advertising. The absolute scariest thing about negative political advertising can be described in two words.

It works.

It pains me to say it, but it’s the truth. With the occasional exception of blatantly false or distasteful personal attack ads that create a backlash against the attacker, negative political advertising works.

Remember when Newt Gingrich was a strong frontrunner about a month before the Iowa Caucuses? Like him or not, fair or not, he was torn to shreds by negative ads and never recovered.

Why do you think political parties, candidates and organizations, with their highly paid consultants, continue to shell out millions and millions of dollars on these negative ads?

Let’s take a closer look at that question.

I won’t delve too deeply into the psychological effect of negative advertising because you don’t see “Dr.” in front of my name, but it’s widely accepted that emotion is stronger than cognition. For the same reason we slow down to look at a car accident, we tend to pay more attention to negative ads.

We don’t enjoy them, but we still remember them.

This explains why an attacked candidate responds so quickly and fiercely to a negative ad – to blunt the attack before it sinks into the minds of voters and inflicts too much damage on the candidate. Just deflect the negativity back on the attacker.

Negative political ads can also stoke the base, especially the fringe, of a candidate’s supporters. More than reinforcing disagreements, negative ads can inspire a genuine dislike, to put it mildly, for the opponent. This can motivate people to contribute money, knock on doors, donate money, make phone calls and give money.

Many Democrats despised George W. Bush. Many Republicans despise Barack Obama. And the beat (down) goes on.

One positive effect of negative political advertising is that some people, especially undecided voters, may decide to do their own research to find out if a suspicious negative ad is true. The people who ultimately decide most general elections may become more informed as a result.

Last but certainly not least, somewhat uninformed citizens who don’t follow the issues of the day, pay attention to debates, read or watch the news, or do any kind of independent analysis of the candidates actually base their decisions on advertising. That alone is troubling.

Let me be perfectly clear about one thing (as I channel Nixon). By saying that negative advertising works in politics, I’m not saying it would work in any other sector. That approach is usually scorned for its pettiness and underhandedness, and rightly so.

Most business owners and marketers realize that a purchase motivated by an emotional response in favor of their brand is much more valuable than a purchase motivated by a negative or even bitter emotional response to a different brand. And unlike politicians, business owners can’t just hold a few $10,000 per plate fundraising dinners to recoup the losses if a campaign backfires.

Sure, some businesses take digs at their competition, often in a lighthearted way (like Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” campaign), but attack ads that trash competitors would be and have been met with lawsuits and “cease and desist” orders. I think the only reason we don’t see lawsuits stemming from political advertising is because both sides would get sued.

Negative advertising is just an accepted part of the political game. And as frustrating, annoying, dishonest and reprehensible as it may seem to many of us, it works.

It works because it can get a candidate elected, especially on a statewide or national stage. It doesn’t work because it solves problems or inspires elected officials to work together to get things done.

And we know which of these things is most important to the average politician.

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Adrienne says:

    Hey Scott,

    I hate negative ads too whether they are political or otherwise. I hate false advertising yet you’re right, people get away with it because it works. It promises you things you can’t possibly get and the negative part of it bashes the other. People actually pay attention to that because it does grab their attention. I think most people just can’t help themselves. If they didn’t we all might be much better off.

    Thanks for your opinion and you’re right, most all of us agree. We don’t like them either.


    • Hi Adrienne,

      The consultants know how people are wired, and they take advantage of that with negative ads. Most of us can’t stand them, but we can’t change the way we’re wired. All we can do is show up to vote. Unfortunately, the candidates on both sides are part of the problem. It’s a never ending cycle. I’m glad I wrote such an uplifting blog!


  • Gary Brush says:

    Another side-effect of all these super PAC $$$ and massive negative advertising is that the two main parties/candidates tend to drown out a third party. And third parties or odd ball candidates seem to be the only ones with novel approaches. As a recent example, both main parties dismiss Dr. Paul as an oddball, out of the mainstream. This begs the obvious question of where have the two mainstream parties gotten us recently?
    Perhaps another thrust at limiting campaign contributions from both unions and corporations might be launched. If each candidate for the same national office got the same amount of “untainted” dollars to spend on their advertising from taxpayer dollars, and could only supplement with a small amount of private contributions, might this change the tone and selectiveness of their advertising? And if an oddball/third candidate, just using Dr. Paul as one representative example, had approximately the same $$$$ to spend as the two main candidates, would this not cause the main two candidates to seriously address the novel ideas that third candidates typically bring to the table?
    More than two parties works in other countries. Why not here? Certainly might make reaching compromises a lot easier. If one of the parties is being totally unreasonable, the other might just gang up and over rule them, rather than having a constant stalemate to which we seemed to have evolved as standard operating procedure in D.C.

    • Gary,

      I always try not to get too political, even when discussing issues related to politics, but I will agree with you on two points: 1) We need to get the money out of politics, and 2) the time is right for a third party that will govern from the middle.

      That said, the Super PAC advertising is mostly negative because they don’t have to answer to voters, which has indeed led to the actual campaigns going more negative because they need to respond to attacks. Getting big money out will likely lessen the negativity, but as long as there’s so much polarization in American politics, it ain’t going anywhere.


  • I think that those negative adds are just ridiculous and it is really sad that it works, but it’s no surprise that it does, because people are easily, very easily influenced. If it didn’t work we know that they wouldn’t spend the kind of money that those ads cost.

    Thanks for this very interesting post.

    • Hi Sylviane,

      Agreed on all counts. And when you say the same untrue or misleading thing enough times, many people start believing it. Also, when you hear nothing but negativity related to one candidate, it becomes more difficult to vote for that person. Yet the bigger impact is felt after the election, and it’s not good.

      As always, thanks for your comments!

  • donna_tribe says:

    What a refreshing blog…because it is true. Thanks Scott for bringing this to people’s attention. Those people one the fence, that believe commercials, or talking heads can be influenced emotionally by negativity.
    Personally, I have a knee jerk reaction to negative advertisements, for that matter any negative auto suggestions.
    The sad truth is that it does work. When you tug on negative emotions with people, they respond to it. It’s like watching the “Jerry Springer” show. Blaaaa
    I know this post will enlighten those one the fence. Hey, someone has to do it.
    Bravo to you

    • Hi Donna,

      I’m relieved that you found this more refreshing than depressing 🙂

      I have the same knee jerk reach to negative ads, but as a news and politics junkie, I also immediately wonder how many people will take a negative and possibly misleading or false ad as the gospel.

      Jerry Springer isn’t a bad comparison at all because so many of these ads appeal to the lowest common denominator (no offense to Springer fans).

      Thanks for your comments and kind words!

  • Sue Price says:

    Hi Scott
    I am an Australian living in Australia and it is perfect here 🙂 – lol if only!
    I clearly do not know the ads or the real issues here but I too hate negative advertising and in Australia the politicians are the worst.

    It is very sad they work and sad far too many people do not think for themselves really.

    Thanks for an interesting post.


    • Sue,

      You mean negative political advertising is not limited to the U.S.? 🙂

      I wish we could all instantly tune out the negative ads, and I wish they didn’t have such influence, but those wishes aren’t coming true anytime soon.

      Glad you found the blog interesting!