This “sweet spot” in political ads is negative
Negative political ads are not negative. Indeed, negative advertising is positive for our democracy.
Information is key to making an informed decision, be it how to vote or where to eat. A candidate is clearly not going to point out his weaknesses and shortcomings, so an opponent has to do it.
And that’s a good thing, even though negative campaigns and advertising have gained a negative reputation. As a verb, “negative” is defined as “refute or disprove”. As a noun, the word is defined as “a negative quality or trait”.
Negative ads and campaigns work – and have done so for more than 2,000 years. While Pompeii is being excavated and restored, negative political messages can be found on the fences of houses and even on tombstones.
Not much has changed. There is a mindset that our negative trip wires are much stronger than positive ones. We humans are essentially still listening for the sound of a broken stick, which could indicate an animal attack.
And if you don’t like the term “negative”, we’ll replace the word “comparative”. Call it what you like, but people will watch negative ads more carefully than positive ads. Voters are moved by negativity.
Jacob Burat explains in a well-written article: “Negative events affect us more than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and they shape our lives more strongly. Farewells, accidents, poor parenting, financial loss and even a casual derogatory comment occupy most of our psychological space, leaving little room for compliments or pleasant experiences that help us on the challenging path of life. The amazing human adaptability ensures that the joy of a raise wears off within months and remains just a measure of future raise. We feel pain, but not the absence of it. “
When pollsters show negative ads to focus groups, they reflexively despise them. When we then ask if the group members would vote for the subject of a negative ad, they usually say no and quote the facts from the ad.
In fact, when looking for a product, restaurant, hotel, or travel destination, Americans are constantly looking for positive and negative information. It is the negative reviews that cause the greatest dismay. It is useful to know the good and bad about a product, restaurant, hotel – or candidate.
The market sets the tone. Voter concerns and reactions to negative ads have evolved over the past two decades, and politicians have adapted accordingly. For example, the days of grainy ads with ominous music are over; Voters just stop believing anything with such negative overtones. Also, voters stop responding to negative allegations that have not been fully substantiated by third party validation such as a newspaper article or study. As a result, the industry has softened the tone of the attacks, adding footnotes and fine print.
Every campaign struggles with the sweet spot between positive and negative information. But in the end the voter decides. You are rewarding or penalizing a candidate for the campaign and we take note of this and make adjustments in the next campaign. Most national policy advisors work on at least a dozen races at a time, and what we learn in one state we move quickly to another.
It is the job of a candidate and his team to win an election. Defining an opponent as less than positive while defining your customer positively is a proven formula for success.
And while the 2016 presidential race may be the most negative in history, it’s a fair bet that the next one will be tougher. There is no change on the horizon. To see if negative ads will work in the political campaign marketplace, you simply need to determine if candidates are using negative ads. From the day that negative ads cease to be effective, they will no longer be used. And that would be bad for our democracy.
Dane Strother, partner at Strother Nuckels Strategies, is an experienced democratic strategist and communications consultant.