Negative Advertising: Solid Strategy or Sour Grapes?

This has been a very busy season for political campaign advertising , and a nasty one at that. So I felt on this election day I would talk about negative advertising.

Political advertising is similar to any other advertising in that each candidate basically becomes the brand. So when you think of it in those terms then it makes it easier to track what effects perception of candidates.

Let’s look at the current Presidential race:

For months, seemingly on end, we have endured commercials that try to position a candidate’s opponent in some negative vein. The content of each commercial is based on trying to convince consumers (voters) that they should not buy the other brand because it is flawed or really isn’t what it appears to be.

Over and over again we have heard this bashing of someone’s character, all while the candidate proffering these negativities offers no solutions to our problems, no vision for the future, nothing but bashing. Nothing but trying to position his opponent in the light he would like him to be perceived.

These negative commercials were aired over and over again – relentlessly. Would this be a wise thing to do if you were promoting a client’s brand? Well let’s have a closer look at what these negative commercials really do…

They raise questions

At first when consumers see negative commercials it can/should/will create interest. Consumers wonder what is true or not and give some thought to what they have been told. So in the beginning consumers may become more interested and/or get drawn in to the claims in the commercial about the opposing brand.

Negative advertising run short term can be quite effective as it raises questions in people’s minds. It also lets you position your opponent in the negative light you define their platform… you try to mold people’s perception of the brand.

It sounds like a good idea at first as you get to label your competitor as faulty, wishy washy, or lacking. And you don’t have to come out and state positive reasons as to why they should choose your brand instead. Now is that good? you ask. Well it is less risky as then your opponent is put on the defensive and cannot take your platform or ideas and twist them, bash them. But will it work?

Negative advertising is very risky and can backfire. I never recommend negative advertising to clients. It can damage your brand irreparably. And from my experience it usually does…

So if you consider this with what has been going on with the election this year, what do you get with repeated negative advertising by both parties…?

Extensive media spending

Normally in advertising it would be foolish to recommend such vast media buys – you would target your media buys to make the message more effective and gear it towards your target market.

Yet in this election both sides ran EXTENSIVE advertising with nothing but negativities for several months before the debates. Was this type of media buy worth it? Not really. I believe it turned off consumers/voters yet when one party ran the ads the other had to respond or they would have buried in the negativity.

So it turned into a “he said– she said” barrage of ads that never stopped – except for one day if I remember correctly – the day of the bombing of the Libyan embassy.

And up to this point no new ideas were presented. No vision for the future. It became defensive. Finger pointing juvenile ads. And why was it done? Because they could. Because they changed the laws of political advertising and allowed, basically for the election to be bought. Sad, but true…

The message impact

Since the volume of this negative advertising exacerbated the impact of the message, let’s look at what this type of media buy with negative advertising can do to a brand’s image…

As humans, it is natural to want to make up our own minds and not be told what to do. Being repeatedly told a candidate is inferior for whatever reason is bound to backfire at some point.

I equate it with bullying. It really is a form of bullying — bashing the other person to make yourself look better. We all know bullying is a negative thing and disliked by most… At first there is the tendency to join in. Then the bullier begins to look undesirable. Meanwhile the bullied is viewed negatively at first, until sympathy sets in, questions arise and the consumer steps back and says — is that true? Wait a minute – do they think I am that stupid? And the consumer questions the bullier and the bullied to see what is the truth. But with both sides bashing each other it becomes rather difficult.

So if negative ads are run continuously, eventually it erodes the credibility of the person or party who created the ad. And if two brands run negative advertising simultaneously against each other, it becomes even less credible for all. People may already have a predisposition to a candidate in spite of the advertising. There are some who are so loyal to a brand that they will never be swayed. But what happens when these negative statements are played over and over again for several months? It irritates people. It makes them dislike the message and dislike the ones who have put the message out there. So the consumer either becomes more gung ho their candidate or starts to question their thoughts about a candidate.

It also makes it so that the candidate who really has a plan – some idea of what they plan to do comes forth, more interesting. And then more people listen to the solution message as they are hungry for solutions. They do not want to hear about the problems any more. And in this economy they know too well – no jobs (at least ones that pay well), too much deficit, to much uncertainty for the future.

In reality, people do not want to hear negative statements about an opponent – – it appears as sour grapes. Because bashing your opponent when you offer no solutions will backfire eventually.

And for the timing (now it is a couple months later…) we are still hearing the negative advertising… it now has become quite annoying. The same posturing – over and over. The same message – that some now regard as truth and others as lies. So the masses have become divided — and adamantly so — some following the rally cries to bash the opponent. Others mad at the opponent for saying what they feel are falsehoods…

Others start to look more closely at the opponent. And when that opponent starts to tell of his/her solutions and rises above the bickering, he/she commands an audience – it makes people interested. People need to be reassured there is a solution. That there is a plan – a way out and better days ahead. They need hope — a course of action and reassurance things will be fine…

Then the consumer begins to question why the candidate has no positive words to say – they have no solutions to these issues they raise. And then people start to complain as they think “I am so tired of hearing this bashing! I know there are problems. How can we fix it?”

And subliminally animosity is created in one’s mind about the candidate or party pushing the negative ads in your face.

Enter the positive message

Go even further down the road and even more negative feelings build about the candidate who bashes and offers no solutions. So it is reasonable that one would want to find solutions, to seek out someone who has an agenda, even if one feels the agenda is not totally realistic. At least they are offering some hope. And as humans, we grasp onto hope – however unrealistic we think it may be. Because we need to feel our future will be brighter.

So now you have a candidate who has tried to position his/her opponent falsely. And in offering nothing but negativities and proffering no solutions, the candidate’s credibility is slowly eroding.

The positioning of his/her opponent starts to contradict what they hear on TV from other sources. Consumers start to doubt the original message from the opponent. And with those doubts come skepticism and questioning as to why the candidate has no solutions to offer only posturing and negativity. Why he/she hasn’t a plan. Why he/she has not been able to pass their agenda even when they were in control…

More time goes by and the repetition of negative statements in the ads now become anathema to the consumer. Any time a commercial comes on, the person wants to change the channel, and forms bad opinions of the person who sponsors the ad. Yet the consumer’s problems don’t subside. Worry and insecurity about the future set in. And there is an anxiousness as to what will happen when one or the other gets elected.

Then the opponent begins to rise above the negativity and puts forth ideas – at a time where his competition doesn’t have the time to properly refute it. And the ideas sound good and bring hope and the candidate begins to gain a lot of attention.

Attention enough to stop people and make them look and think twice about him/her. Then this candidate picks up steam and begins to gain ground while the opponent still bullies, bashes and makes fun of the competition. All while not offering any solutions to the problems that concern the consumer.

The trend continues. One brand continues to run negative ads and the other solutions and ideas in their ads. So what happens…?

People start to rethink their perceptions and preferences.

But combine the information and multiple messages coming from the Internet – through Facebook and Twitter. Confusion arises with the mixed messages and clutter through online bites of information. The decision becomes harder.

But is it too little too late? Timing is the enemy of this race. Is the positive message too little too late? Hard to tell.

Timing is everything

In summation, and this subject is open for discussion, the more the Internet develops and handheld devices and the rapid transmission of information increase in use the more interesting the changing of consumer decisions will be. In the classical marketing sense the candidate with the positive message should rise to victory. Yet in the modern technological aspect of this, the rapid spread of false information and chat between consumers may skew the results. Time will tell — and we’ll talk about that later…

-Geri Konstantin