Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The Intrigue of Negative Political Ads

The Intrigue of Negative Political Ads

Image via the LA Times

In the past two weeks, the political world has been in uproar over two negative advertising campaigns, one from each party. First, President Obama released an ad attacking Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital. Then, a planned ad tying Obama to Reverend Jeremiah Wright leaked to the New York Times. I don’t need to analyze these ads and their meaning, because Anthony Resnick has already done so brilliantly. But I’m intrigued by negative ads—not just these two, but negative ads in general—for four reasons:

1. People hate them.

On this, there can be no debate. And it’s not just voters who hate them. Every politician since the beginning of time has complained about negative campaigning and character assassination. In the 2000 Republican primary, George W. Bush and John McCain squabbling over negative campaigning during a debate led to the crowd cheering Alan Keyes more enthusiastically than a crowd of people has probably ever cheered for Alan Keyes before or since. Romney disavowed the proposed Wright ad, which was met with a torrent of criticism so strong that everyone associated with the project backed away from it like it was a nuclear bomb. Newark Mayor Cory Booker criticized both the Wright ad and the Bain ad. But why? They had nothing in common except that they were both negative. An ad being negative alone should not be reason enough to hate it. This is silly. If an ad is untruthful (too many to name); or racist; or, at best, race-baiting (the proposed Wright ad; the infamous Willie Horton ad); or nonpertinent and stupid (Obama is like Paris Hilton!), then, yes, hate away. But the concept of shining a harsh light on one’s opponent is not something at which we ought to turn up our noses. As they say, politics ain’t beanbag.

2. People hate negative ads—and yet, they seem to work. When done well, that is.

In next week’s column I’ll delve more into how and why and when negative ads can work. But putting aside their efficacy for the moment, I’m plenty interested in the misconception surrounding them: that since voters hate negative ads, negative ads don’t work. These two things are not at all the same. Consider the end of this typical Reuters article, which bashes negative advertising in the Republican primary and collects quotes from various outraged and discouraged citizen-voters:

“All the advertising and phone calls do not seem to be doing their job. ‘These people are just lambasting each other,’ said Howell. ‘In the end, I will vote for the lesser of seven or eight evils who will do the least damage to my country.’”

This quote, unscientific as it is, does not prove that negative ads work, but it suggests the opposite of the article’s thesis. The ads do seem to be doing their job. The voter hates them but, in the end, says he will vote for the candidate he views the least negatively. In other words, Mitt Romney was free to drag his opponents through the mud. If a little mud splattered on him in the process, so what? Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were covered head to toe.

This is exactly what happened in the GOP primary. Negative ads played a major role in destroying the (slim) possibility that Gingrich could have been the next president (shouldn’t this fact alone be enough to love them?). Each time Gingrich took a lead—in Iowa and then in Florida—pro-Romney Super PACs bombarded voters with negative ads. It was, for Newt, death by 1,000 cuts. (Though in Newt’s case, the cuts were pretty much all self-inflicted; the ads from pro-Romney Super PACs were merely documenting the carnage.) Later, they did the same thing to Rick Santorum in Ohio.

3. Negative ads, especially in general elections, reflect the reality of modern politics.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good inspirational ad as much as the next guy:

Seriously, I can watch that ad all day. Can’t you? Except watching the ad reminds me that Obama was unable to reach across the divide. Not because of any personal failing, but because we have deeply divided political parties and a system that encourages and enables gridlock. There are very real reasons why we have negative ads: our two major parties are in major disagreement about what America should look like. Why shouldn’t ads lay out that contrast and tell us what opponents believe? Negative ads do not cause or increase partisanship; they reflect it.

4. Best of all (and so that we can end on a somewhat positive note, for those depressed by negative ads), they are funny.

Or, at least, negative ads have way more potential to be funny than positive ads. The only hilarious positive ad I can immediately think of is the one where Jon Hunstman rides his motorcycle across the desert in search of a Republican party moderate enough to elect him. Negative ads, however, often turn hilarious when they don’t keep it simple (simplicity is part of what makes LBJ’s “Daisy” Ad above so effective). Granted, this humor is almost always unintentional, but still:

Wait, was that a preview for The Road or a political ad? I shudder to think of the footage they left on the cutting room floor here. Armed gangs mugging grannies? Zombies eating Real Americans?

The ad was criticized for what occurs at the 40-second mark, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s face flashes for a nanosecond to Obama’s and back. (Hey, they both lead countries, they are both dangerous, radical Muslims. Close enough, right? It’s all in the game.) But what about the baby in the empty bathtub around the 14-second mark? What is this supposed to mean? Are his parents going to drown him so he doesn’t have to grow up in Obamaville? Is a water shortage looming if we don’t vote Santorum? Is this some sort of baptism ritual or secret signal to Evangelicals? (I’m Jewish; help me out.)

Of course, trying to evoke an emotional response to strange or attention-grabbing industry can go too far. Take the infamous “Demon Sheep” ad from California (when the unofficial title your ad is known by suggests it was created after someone took acid and watched Donnie Darko, you may have gone too far):

This ad actually functions much more effectively as audio (seriously, listen to it without watching). But I’d guess the average voter’s thought process while watching this ad is as follows:

Sheep sheep sheep scary lightning tumbling sheep pig more pigs budget money sheep gas sheep numbers taxes sheep sheep sheep sheep sheep wolf scary red eyes weird mask sheep look out sheep look out!

. . . wait, was that ad about? Something about the budget? Taxes? I don’t know but the sheep were cute.