Thanks to a recommendation on Twitter last week, I watched Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his legacy, Lee Atwater was the campaign strategist that pretty much invented the negative political game. He was a master at planting rumors and spreading lies that would take hold before any fact checker could come along and dispel them. He knew that first impressions would last.
We see so much of this in politics now. It’s commonplace to have a political ad or statement be an outright lie and have the lie teller get away with it. Fact checkers during the 2012 Obama/Romney election went crazy. Even during the debates, stats were fudged and statements were made that were bold-faced lies. And even though fact checkers were quickly setting the record straight, the original lie stuck with more people than it should have.
And all of this was just exacerbated with social media. Infographics with half-the-story statistics spread around Facebook faster than the latest Kimye rumor. I started to get weary of sharing anything as every time I did, I’d get a slap on the wrist from followers (while dozens of others spread the not-so-accurate graphic).
We are all aware of this, but very few of us know where it came from or why it’s so damned effective.
It didn’t 100% start with Lee Atwater, but he definitely put on a great show of what you could get away with if you had no scruples. PR spinners had been effectively massaging the facts and pulling the wool over the eyes of the masses since the days of Eddie Bernays, but even these spinners had limits and played it careful. I highly recommend the movie to anyone who is curious about how attack ad in politics got it’s start (btw, Karl Rove is a ‘student’ of Lee Atwater, though I’d say he’s a much clumsier version. Atwater had a special level of apathy to what he was doing…until his deathbed when he realized that he had created a monster.).
But the origins are easier to stomach than the fact that negative political ads work so effectively at the end of the day. Even the Obama campaign deployed them heavily during this last election. The question has been asked and explored: Do Negative Political Ads Work? Well, in a way YES.
According to research, the way in which negative ads DON’T work is:
1. they won’t increase voter turnout
2. they don’t change the minds of people who already have a political leaning
But the way they DO work is that they get the attention of the people who are undecided. And really, that’s who all ads target, right?
According to an article on the Discovery network, human beings “are emotional creatures, wired to pay attention to harmful information.” We pay more attention to the negative stuff because paying attention to the negative stuff contributes more to our survival. The negative ads are stressful, but they make us engage and pay attention.
This spells bad news for the future of politics everywhere, even Canada, where attack ads are definitely on the rise. There is an upside to the downside: negative politics actually engages the disengaged at a certain level and even those who could care less about politics start to remember the issues. And this wouldn’t be so bad if the negative ads were fact based, but because of Atwater’s legacy, many strategists realized that lying is just no big deal.
But there is good news, too. It seems that the over-saturation of attack ads lessens the effect. A researcher and associate professor from the University of Miami, Juliana Fernandez, showed in experiments that the overuse of attack ads renders the ads less effective than no advertising at all:
In one experiment, Ms. Fernandes showed participants a 30-second negative advertisement one, three, or five times. Results indicated that that positive perception of the candidate sponsoring the ad was highest when the participants saw the ad three times and lowest when they saw it five times.
Which, thankfully, means that we have our limit. And according to the 7:1 ratio of negative to positive political ad placement in the last US election, I’m hoping we’ve reached it.
So how do you combat negative attack ads? Well, here is first what you should NOT do:
1. respond with negative attack ads
2. be silent/ignore them
3. dodge and change the topic
Past political candidates learnt the hard way that neither of these ‘reactions’ work well. Bill Clinton was a classic dodger and it earned him the nickname, “Slick Willy”. Michael Dukakis tried to ignore Bush’s attacks on his political past with stone cold silence and he paid a dear price for it (when one ‘side’ is delivering a sticky message, it’s best you respond quickly). Anyone who has responded to negativity with negativity has just come out looking like they were defensive (and thus guilty). The best way to combat negative ads is to do what we were taught as young children:
Counter with honesty and openness…and a little humor never hurts.
This works especially well now with the web and the public’s increased desire for ‘human’ and authentic interactions. Barack Obama, though his campaign was quite negative in itself, won HUGE points during the campaign when responding to negative ads by using honesty peppered with humor. One of my favorite moments was Barack Obama on the Tonight Show discussing the negative campaigning Donald Trump had been doing against him:
I’m hoping Obama’s ability to step up and be open, honest and have a sense of humor about it becomes the anti-Atwater of the next era of political campaigning. Messages delivered through humor are also emotionally sticky and we need more of the funny emotions sticking than the angry or fearful emotions.
I recommend everyone watches Boogie Man to understand where the attack ad came from so we can figure out how to move beyond it.