Attack ads work

Like any political nerd, I listen to talk radio. Yesterday afternoon, the talk of the town was the new PC attack ad, and I found myself getting irritated–not because I dislike attack ads, not because I think people should like them, but because of the insistence of several angry, idealistic callers that attack ads–and negative politics in general–do not work.

Attack ads do work. ‘Going negative’ works. How do I know that? Because politicians haven’t stopped going negative. In fact, going negative is timeless. What do you think Martin Luther did while he was locked up in a tower? He came up with insults against his opponents. (See the Martin Luther Insult Generator) Many great orations by Greek and Roman politicians and philosophers were denouncements of their opponents. My point is that going negative works because it has been done for millennia.

That does not mean that going negative always works. There are more risks involved with attack ads than conventional advertising. Personally-themed attacks (like the 1993 ad against Jean Chretien’s facial deformities) or over-the-top sensationalism (like the Liberals’ 2006 “soldiers in our cities with guns” ad) are ineffective, at least in Canada. Constant negativity or not offering any constructive ideas are similarly ineffective. Like fighting, one must be able to both attack and defend, and one should know when and how much of each activity to do.

How else do we know that going negative works? Because research has shown that it does, at least with regard to attack ads.

Political parties love research, and this love has created an entire industry devoted to supporting the activities of political parties. Successful attack ads are always well-researched. They target a specific party on a specific issue and are constructed to appeal to a certain demographic segment. When the ads are produced, they are tested in front of audiences in focus groups and larger ‘dial groups’ to measure the ads’ effect on the target audience. This audience also determines how advertising spots are purchased on selected media formats, networks and time slots. With the time, effort, and cost of this process, a machine as successful as the Alberta Progressive Conservatives would surely do their homework before releasing any attack ad.

So what were they thinking? The PCs could be afraid they have moved so far to the centre that they are losing too much of their right flank. Redford’s courting of unaligned moderates and ‘soft’ Liberals is nothing new, but internal polling could suggest that the PCs went farther than they should have. This ad could be reminding the PCs’ more right wing supporters that, while tougher drunk driving legislation curtails freedoms, it is justified because it is done in the name of protecting innocent families. It counters the strong right-wing value of freedom with the equally-strong right-wing value of safety. This is the same reason why the opposition to the federal gun registry was as much about “maintaining the safety of Canadians from breaches of a database that is a potential shopping list for criminals” as it was about “protecting the freedom of innocent hunters, farmers and gun owners.” Similarly, public safety is also employed to justify the curtailing internet privacy. Conversely, this is why the the relatively minor breach of privacy of the long-form census was deemed unacceptable by conservatives–because it was used to support the arms of the welfare state. Alas, I digress.

To take this analysis a step further, one might argue the ad specifically targets husbands. Women are already more likely vote for Redford because of her stance on social issues and they are already less likely to vote for the Wildrose, so they cannot be the target audience. However, this ad could play well to conservative men who take issue with curtailing freedoms– a demographic segment the PCs are losing to the Wildrose. A subset of these men may have been found to have the traditional value of viewing themselves as the protector of their wives and families. The line, “300 Albertans won’t have another date night” stokes the fear that couples (or families) are in danger. To combat that danger, these men who view themselves as the protector of their family are given the opportunity to fulfill their duty by opposing the party that opposes tougher drunk driving legislation. By extension, supporting the Wildrose and their lax stance on drunk driving is tantamount to abdicating a man’s responsibility to protect his family. The ad is not pro-nanny-state because it does not say that the government will save lives, but, rather, encourages men to exercise “real leadership” by “making decisions to save lives” (i.e. not supporting the Wildrose). The alternating male-female dialogue even sounds like a conversation a couple might have on a date night, with the husband concluding at the end that “Danielle Smith and the Wildrose” are “not worth the risk.”

Alternatively, one could argue that women are the intended audience for the ad and that the fear of the Wildrose is meant to encourage women who might be inclined to vote for a party other than the PCs or the Wildrose to vote PC in order to stop the Wildrose. The ad’s distribution in Calgary, where the PC-Wildrose competition is tighter could support this theory, though adopting this tactic deviates from the conventional wisdom that an attack ad is supposed to directly target your opponent and bleed their support to you. Inciting an unmentioned third party’s supporters to vote for you out of fear for the designated villain is a rather complex message to convey in 30 seconds.

All of this thought on the part of the ad’s creators is not to say that, in the end, the ad will work. Just because something was well-planned and well-researched is no guarantee of success. Unforeseen factors can arise. However, if the ad fails, it will be because of an unforeseen factor and not from a lack of due diligence. The ads have already created a buzz in both mainstream and social media, and the PCs will be polling in the coming days to measure the ad’s effectiveness. The WRA likely will also poll to see if they have sustained any damage. If a third-party poll is not conducted and reported, the victor in this battle will probably release their internal numbers with their respective choice headlines: “Albertans believe Wildrose opposition to drunk driving legislation will endanger the public,” or “Nanny-state Redford’s negative smear tactics leave Albertans unconvinced.”

Of course, this attack ad will not work on the angry idealists who call in to radio shows to denounce negative politics. However, it is doubtful any political party actively woos these voters because these voters are unlikely to be convinced by any advertising. These voters are the ones who read every literature piece, attend the all-candidates forum, watch the televised debate, and call the candidates in their riding.

Am I saying that attack ads are desirable? No, but they are a reality in politics, and they always will be, just as they always have been. While I would not go so far as to say they are a good thing, I will say that they are necessary.

For anyone who wants to read more about campaigning, here is a short reading list on the subject from my former professor, Tom Flanagan: (this is by no means an exclusive list)

John Laschinger and Geoffery Stevens – Leaders and Lesser Mortals: Backroom Politics in Canada

Warren Kinsella – The War Room: Political Strategies for Business, NGOs, and Anyone Who Wants to Win (replaces Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics)

Tom Flanagan – Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power

Frank Luntz – Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear

P.S.  Wouldn’t it be great to hear the line, “You can either stand with us, or stand with the drunk drivers.”?


About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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