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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 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.