Negative ads must rise above cliché

Tuesday saw 50th-anniversary commemorations of “The day the music died,” recalling the 1959 plane-crash deaths of legendary rock ‘n’ rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. I’m wondering whether in 2058 we might be celebrating a comparable milestone for “The year the negative ad died.” Of course, the music never really died, and negative political ads won’t go away altogether, but things are changing.

The first time I took note was in 1990 while dial-testing negative TV ads for a gubernatorial campaign. We had wired up seventy-five voters, registering their moment-to-moment responses to prospective commercials, many of them attack ads. I noticed a studious, 30-something test subject in the front row dialing away. Curiously, he had a huge, hardback copy of War and Peace in his lap. That’s not the sort of thing voters normally bring along to focus groups. When the session was over, the reader came straight up to me, got right in my face, and said very slowly and menacingly, “I know what you’re up to and I don’t like it.” I deduced that his reading material may have planted seeds of resentment about the strategies and tactics of campaign wars.

Throughout the 1990s, the response I saw to negative ads evolved from occasional anger to guarded giggles. Whenever I tested negative ads, I noticed that they often elicited nervous laughter. People thought they were funny or clever, but they didn’t seem to know whether it was appropriate to make light of the serious business of electing officeholders. But as we moved into the new millennium, it seemed that negative ads began to provoke outright belly laughter and even delight. Attack and brutal comparison ads, in contrast to traditional political fare of sappy biographies, insipid endorsements and dreamy vision statements, were at least entertaining. And scholars studying voters’ reactions to negative ads concluded that attack ads were more likely to be useful to voters because of factual information they typically contain.

But last year, the laughter and delight seemed to die. It was replaced not by active anger, but by passive neglect. People aren’t paying much attention anymore. Negative ads have become such a cliché that they often aren’t seen by voters as worthy of serious consideration. That political attacks have become clichéd is evident everywhere in our culture. “Dancing with the Stars,” ABC’s mega-hot TV show, punctuated its pre-election episodes by airing ersatz “attack ads” in which Susan Lucci of “All My Children” savaged former NFL lineman Warren Sapp. Everyone laughed, because it was out of place. But in the real world, in real races, such attacks are just “blah, blah, blah.”

The Colorado Senate race last fall confirmed this. Every conservative independent expenditure outfit in America was hitting on modestly known Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) between late August and early October. I am told that as much as $10 million in negative ads were spent to tag Udall the “Boulder Liberal.” It got so crazy that Udall responded with his own spoof on the attackers. Our tracking showed the Democrat’s negatives not rising significantly, and he wasn’t defined as a liberal the way his attackers envisioned. I received a desperate call from a “top man” in Washington GOP circles, demanding to know, “Why aren’t the ads working?” I ventured that no one was paying attention to ads like that any more. The dark dungeon music, grainy photos, sophomoric humor and other staples of negative ads just aren’t getting past the perceptual screens that voters erect between themselves and their TV sets. Perhaps the failure of the anti-Udall ads was unique to place, race and year, but I doubt it.

Negative ads, like rock ‘n’ roll, will survive, but they are going to have to change to be effective.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.