Negative Advertising: An essential means of voter education.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hi. This is the first of two articles that I’m writing about “negative advertising,” a concept that I believe has been given a bad rap by the media and, most importantly, by the form of it that many well-funded candidates and their political action committees have chosen. This first piece is about its definition and essential role. (As usual, I’m going to write like I know what I’m talking about, leaving it to your comments to help me get it right.)

“Negative advertising” is when one candidate or organization supporting a candidate runs ads that point out shortcomings of the other candidate. The media treats negative advertising like it’s a bad thing. It’s not.

Calling them “attack ads” has to do with the style of the negative advertising. To get your attention, the advertiser basically screams at you, yelling his points to make sure you’re listening. Explaining those same points in a calm, studied, academic presentation would be boring and less effective. At least that seems to be the prevailing theory. Personally, I think that, if you have to scream something to get people’s attention, maybe the idea you’re selling isn’t all that powerful or important. You don’t have to be mad or mean to educate or change someone’s mind. In fact, I think the emotion, the anger actually detracts from the message.

Sometimes, particularly if the message is, to be polite, less than accurate, the negative emotion of the ad is the point the candidate is trying to sell. The one candidate wants you to associate anger or disgust, some negative emotion, with his opponent that will discourage you from voting for the other candidate. It’s a tactic that can backfire sometimes but, more often than not, it works.

Why not just let the other guy make his best argument, and you make yours? Why aren’t positive arguments enough? Because positive presentations, in and of themselves, portray an incomplete picture of what you’re selling. Making matters worse, politicians play to their audience, the voters whose support they need to elect them. Politicians often tell voters what they (the voters) want to hear. The result can be that the positive images competing candidates project are too similar to give the undecided voter a real, well-defined basis for making up his or her mind. Even in its most elementary form, a candidate whose electorate is, let’s say, “pro-life,” isn’t going to tell you he’s pro-life without pointing out that his opponent is “pro-choice.” He’s not willing to risk that you’ll find that out from some other source. Certainly the other candidate’s not going to tell you, not if abortion is an important issue for you and he wants your vote.

The logic of negative advertising is simple. The one candidate can hardly be expected to tell voters what’s wrong with him. (The candidate can, of course, be a man or a woman. I’m going keep it simple, and just use the male pronoun.) If you’re running for office, you’re not going to be telling the electorate that you’re morally unworthy of representing them, that you’re corrupt or lazy, clueless or generally incompetent. And you’re going to avoid mentioning your commitment to ideas with which a majority of voters will not agree or maybe even find offensive. As a matter of nature and common sense, you’re going to focus on the positive. You’re going to talk about the good reasons to vote for you, not the reasons to vote against you, that is, for the other guy.

Okay. If not the candidate himself, who will point out the candidate’s shortcomings? The press? Sure, to some extent. Most media, particularly the network and cable news services, are reactionary. I mean that literally. The nature of their business is such that they “react” to what the candidates say or do, but stop well short of giving their viewers a comprehensive understanding of those candidates’ current positions and history. The network and cable news services, with the exception of shows like “60 Minutes,” are superficial in their coverage, clinging to sound bites, catering to an audience with a short span of attention, in the context of a fast moving news cycle.

Newspapers and magazines are much better at voter education because their medium gives them more time to study a candidate and present their findings. Unfortunately, they lack the impact of a 30 second commercial running again and again and again, pounding an idea into your conscious memory and, even farther and more effectively, into your subconscious where your core beliefs reside.

Yes, I’m making a distinction between the idea of negative advertising which makes perfectly good sense and is an essential means of voter education, assuming it’s honest of course, and the form of it which often involves a lot of loud and annoyingly repetitious, but often very effective television ads. It’s okay not to like the prevailing form of negative advertising, but you’ve got to appreciate the need for it.

-Next Contestant

Can’t wait to read the next installment? See “Next Contestant: Changing voters’ minds.

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