Friday, November 5, 2010

Celebrating the best of the worst: negative political advertising.

Most academic advertising textbooks analyze advertising messaging by breaking the ads into categories. Usually the breakdown involves groupings something like: rational, emotional, or slice-of-life appeals. Rational ads target the mind by making logical appeals. Emotional ads, are designed to “hit you in the gut” with an appeal to feelings. Slice-of-life ads try to give a snapshot of reality. But, I think the more interesting field of study involves negative advertising. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in political advertising.

In the latest American mid-term election, more than $3.3 billion dollars
flooded into advertisements. Yep, that is billion with a "B". Heck, there are rumors that former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent $140 million of her own money trying to capture the California Governorship. (It is an interesting curiosity that those candidates who spend their own money are not usually successful in their bids. eg. Mitt Romney (2008 primaries), Steve Forbes (1996 primaries). Perhaps, this is due to the perception that they are trying to “buy” their electoral seats.) But in politics, some estimate that close to 50% of political advertisements have negative tones. That is about $1.5 billion worth of negative ads this past American election cycle. Some of these ads are down-right nasty too. We’ll “celebrate” the best of the worst at the end of this posting.

The case for going negative and the spirit of Socrates
In a previous blog posting, I commented that the result of negative advertising is
depressed voter turnout. Proponents of negative advertising, however, will argue that negative ads are a good thing. After all, if there is relevant negative information that the voting public should be made aware of, that information should be available for consideration. They will also argue that there is a self-regulating mechanism. If the negativity gets too much, the voters will reject the candidate running the ads. (We saw evidence of this in a 1993 Progressive Conservative attack ad on Jean Chretien). Regardless of the case for running negative ads, depressing votes runs counter to the spirit of democracy. Socrates would feel vindicated.

Political Campaigns – the natural home for the negative ad:
We can’t be na├»ve. Negative political advertisements are not going away any time soon. The big question is why are there so many negative ads in politics?
1. Negative ads can be extremely effective. The most effective ones work on
emotional levels and often target voters’ fears. The best example is this one run by the Democrats in the 1964 Presidential Election. Johnson was facing off against Goldwater and Johnson wanted to paint Goldwater as a trigger-happy-war-monger. Click here for the ad: “ DAISY” Think how terrifying (fear) that this ad would have been to a non-jaded, less-sophisticated 1964 TV viewing audience. This Democratic ad took nasty advertising to a level never-before-seen. And, it was a big contributor to Goldwater’s loss. Note, I am not saying Johnson’s win.

2. Election cycles have short term objectives. Unlike, traditional brands which have long term sales horizons- and longer term horizons to recoup losses or take competitors to court, political advertising spending is ramped up to peek within days of voter decision. So, if a fraudulent claim is made against a candidate in an ad 5 days before the election, the “victim” candidate can resort to a defensive “that is not true” which makes him look weak, or she can go on attack and demonize her opponent. The latter of course fuels the next wave of negativity. In a zero-sum game (which can deteriorate in to a shrinking-sum game), with a short election cycle, there is a no-holds barred approach to advertising. Industries have self-regulated rules of conduct and “truthfulness in advertising” which holds the brands accountable in the longer term. These apply a lot less in a 3 week advertising campaign.

3. Unlike business, politics is mostly a zero sum game. In business, if Burger King spends millions of dollars reminding consumers that McDonald’s has uber-high fat content in its fried burgers, and McDonalds retaliates by dissing BK’s fat mayo level on the Whopper, the consumer would come to the conclusion that the entire category sucks. The category shrinks. So, BK, McD’s, Wendy’s and company have a mutual interest in growing the entire category. If BK has a slight reduction in market share- but the entire category is growing well, BK is still going to be pretty happy. But, when it comes to an election, there is no comradory among competitors. My win is your loss. It is as simple as that. And, if the candidate is having trouble raising his poll numbers, drag down the opponents. This argument explains why in the 2006 and 2008 election Republicans ran the bulk of the negative ads and why the Democrats outsleazed the Republicans in 2010. Neither party has a monopoly on sleaze.

4. The press likes to pick up “the new negative attack ad.” This goes to the concept that “bad news sells more.” (See Bad is Stronger than Good) Translation, the free publicity from the attack ads gives incentives to make meaner, nastier ads.

5. The rise of the unaccountable endorsements. Despite the well intentioned efforts of McCain and Feingold (who just lost, btw)- recent campaign finance reform has led to soft monies funding more and more American elections in larger and larger capacities. The result, proxy political party “independent groups” get involved in developing ad campaigns. These “independent” 3rd party groups create ads that the Republican and Democratic brands would be ashamed to assign their party brand approvals to. Just think of the punishment John Kerry took fromthe Swift Boat Veterans.

So, now let’s "celebrate" the best of the worst.

Canada's lowball political moment.
End of the Empire Democratic Smears on Republicans
Taliban Dan ads
Aqua Buddah

Republican Smears on Democrats
Ron XXX Kind
Willie Horton ad


  1. Nice post Bob, I especially like your point #3 that would mostly explain why half of the political ads are negative. The "Daisy" ad for Lyndon Johnson and the one of Paul Nelson against Ron XXX Kind is awful in many ways, its hard to know whats true and whats false in this nonsense of an ad.

  2. A lot of research projects have shown that negative information is more impactful than positive information.
    Peter Hart did a survey during the USA elections on 1988, and found that majority of ads were against candidates. In other words, there were more ads against Dukasis and Bush than for them. This suggests that winner is not the most desired candidate, but the least undesirable candidate.

  3. Just a follow up to your blog Bob.

    Given the 3 samples from the US congressional elections that you put up, all 3 of the negative-ad-running-candidates lost. Further evidence for your thought that the more desperate candidate has incentive to go negative.