That 'sweet spot' in political ads leans negative

That 'sweet spot' in political ads leans negative
© Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Negative political ads are not a negative. Indeed, negative ads are a positive for our democracy.  

Information is key to making an educated decision, be it how to vote or where to eat. A candidate clearly won’t point out his or her foibles and deficiencies, so an opponent must.

And that is a good thing, despite negative campaigns and advertising having gained a negative reputation. As a verb, “negative” is defined as “to refute or disprove.” As a noun, the word is defined as “a negative quality or characteristic.”  

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Negative ads and campaigns do work — and have for more than 2,000 years. As Pompei is being excavated and restored, negative political messages are found on the fencing of homes and even tombstones.  

Not much has changed. There is a school of thought that our negative tripwires are far more powerful than positive. We humans are, in essence, still listening for the sound of a broken stick that could portend the attack of an animal.

And if you don’t like the term “negative,” then let’s substitute the word “comparative.” Call it what you’d like, but people watch negative ads more attentively than they watch positive ads. Voters are moved by negativity.  

Jacob Burat, in a well-written piece, explains it this way: “Negative events affect us more than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and they play a larger role in shaping our lives. Farewells, accidents, bad parenting, financial losses and even a random snide comment take up most of our psychic space, leaving little room for compliments or pleasant experiences to help us along life’s challenging path. The staggering human ability to adapt ensures that joy over a salary hike will abate within months, leaving only a benchmark for future raises. We feel pain, but not the absence of it.”

When pollsters show negative ads to focus groups, they reflexively scorn them. Then when we ask if the group participants would vote for the subject of a negative ad, they typically say no and cite the facts from the ad.  

Indeed, Americans seek positive and negative information all the time when researching a product, restaurant, hotel or travel location. It is the negative reviews that cause the most consternation. It is useful to know the good and bad about a product, a restaurant, a hotel — or a candidate.  

The marketplace dictates the tone. Voters’ concerns and reactions to negative ads have evolved over the past two decades and, accordingly, political professionals have adapted. For example, the days of running grainy ads with ominous music are over; voters simply quit believing anything with overtones that negative. Also, voters quit responding to negative charges that were not fully supported by third-party validation such as a newspaper article or a study. So, the industry has lightened the tone of attacks and added footnotes and fine print.

Every campaign wrestles with where the sweet spot is between positive and negative information. But ultimately, the voter decides. You either reward or punish a candidate for the campaign, and we take note and make adjustments in the next campaign. Most national-level political consultants work at least a dozen races at once, and what we learn in one state, we quickly migrate to another state.  

The job of a candidate and his team is to win an election. Defining an opponent in less than positive terms, while defining one’s client in favorable terms, is a proven winning formula.  

And while the 2016 presidential race may be the most negative in history, it’s a fair bet the next will be tougher. There is no change on the horizon. The way to determine if negative ads work in the marketplace of political campaigns is simply to note whether candidates are using negative ads. The day that negative ads no longer are effective, they no longer will be used. And that will be bad for our democracy.

Dane Strother, a partner in Strother Nuckels Strategies, is a veteran Democratic strategist and communications consultant.