Negative Political Campaigning – Is It Necessary?

I obviously can’t speak for you, but as for me (as a place brand builder), one of the most difficult and discouraging times is the period leading up to a political election.  The two primary reasons are 1) significantly more money is invested by political parties to brand their candidate as the best choice for the public office being contested than is spent to market the location they represent and 2) negative campaigning has become so pervasive that the work done to positively position a community, region, state or nation is placed at risk of being undermined by widely broadcast messaging that suggests the sky is falling and the candidate in the advertisement has the right plan to reverse the downward death spiral, thereby saving the place from certain economic extinction.

How did our political system for electing public leaders reach this level of negativity?  Is it really a necessary practice to identify the best person for the job?  Is the potential risk of damaging your place image a fair and reasonable trade-off?

According to Kantar Media, approximately 48% of political ads (reference: cmag EYE Fall 2010) in 2010 have been negative.  Advertising Age Magazine reports mid-term elections are on track for $3 Billion in spending, +$50 million ahead of 2008 and +$185 million ahead of 2006 at the same time.  Considering the Nation is slowly emerging from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I think an increase in political advertising investment is quite remarkable.  The unfortunate thing is, based on these data, roughly $1.4 Billion of those dollars were invested in negative messaging.

James Leach authored an opinion piece in 2008 for U.S. News & World Report titled Negative Political Ads Hurt the United States.  At the time, James was a 15-term representative from Iowa and a visiting professor at Princeton University, so the man knows the game from the inside.  His core conclusion was that “the duty of public officials is to inspire hope rather than manipulate fear.”

Sharon Bagley (columnist) wrote a piece for Newsweek in 2008.  Her article looked at the topic from a different and equally thought-provoking angle.  Here is an excerpt from her article.  “Negative ads typically incite anger or anxiety, both of which stimulate attention and engagement. Where attention leads, response follows. We are wired to react more to negative information, says Stanford’s Krosnick: “When voters dislike a candidate, they are more motivated to go out and vote,” to keep that lying, cheating reprobate out of office. If an ad attacks an opponent with misinformation, which engaged voters can identify [through media coverage or their own research], what people learn from it is that this candidate is willing to lie to get ahead,” says Stanford’s Krosnick. “So that’s now information about the candidate who approved the ad, not the one it targets.” The hand wringing over negative campaigning is more than misplaced. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the mind and the emotions of the electorate work.”

David Mark’s book titled Going Dirty:  The Art of Political Campaigning is a fun read.  It describes the history of the practice. David concludes ““There’s nothing inherently wrong with negative ads, they are an important part of an adversarial political culture. And if campaigns seem more negative today, perhaps that’s because the rough parity between Republicans and Democrats has made our political culture even more adversarial.”  If you want a quick synopsis, W. James Antle III wrote a nice article for the National Review Online about David’s book.

Unfortunately, to date I have not yet found any papers or articles about the effect of negative political campaigning on the community, region, state or nation place brand self and external image.  (If you know of one, please share it with me.)  My personal, non-data based, hypothesis is that negative political campaigning does have a damaging impact on how the community views itself and how others view the community.  James’ perspective appeals the most to me, but both Sharon and David make important points that cannot be simply dismissed out of hand.  Perhaps this is an area requiring additional, rigorous academic research to better understand the underlying dynamics.

I should point out David’s analysis uncovered that negative campaigning can be traced back to our first contested presidential election when Jefferson charged that Adams intended to marry off his son, John Quincy Adams, to a daughter of King George III — then turn the country back to the British; and Adams retaliated by saying of Jefferson: “He is a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Despite that fact, I still remain extremely frustrated during the period leading up to political elections.  It’s a heart thing, not a head thing for me.  I simply can’t help but wonder and worry about the potential negative impact on both the local and global image of Brand America.

Here are two articles that suggest I may not be alone in my frustration.

Recent USA Today article

Tom Freidman’s perspective

What are your thoughts on negative campaigning in politics?  Do you have concerns?  Are you frustrated as well?

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9 Comments so far

  1. Fletcher Waynick

    October 29, 2010

    It would be nice if intelligent debate had a place in politics today.

  2. Chris Finnie

    October 29, 2010

    I can see a point to negative ads. People do run for office and somehow think that voters won’t find out that they’ve advocated for some unpopular position, or broken the law. I used to assume that journalists would expose things like that. But our media is currently so fragmented and partisan that I no longer think that’s a safe bet.

    At the same time, I do agree that–between this partisan media, and the huge amount of money being put behind negative advertising by corporate interests–our social fabric is being poisoned. I’m old enough to remember when people trusted government to act in our best interests. We assumed they’d maintain our roads and schools, and protect our nation. We no longer do.

    Perhaps this mistrust is well placed, as lobbyists have corrupted elected officials at both the state and national level. But the anger would be better directed toward the corporate interests that have bought and sold our governments. Their interests are often short-sighted, and usually not those of the electorate as a whole.

    For example, agricultural lobbyists have fought expensive battles against tracking systems that would make it easier to identify the cause of food-borne illnesses in this now global market. But recalls and consumer mistrust of their products have cost them far more than the tracking system would have. And people have needlessly lost their lives because of shortcuts taken in safety and cleanliness. All in the name of the bottom line.

    Back in the ’50s, president Eisenhower warned of the vast amounts of money from the military/industrial complex “washing over the gunwhales of the ship of state, threatening to sink our democracy.” He was right then. Thanks to the current activist Supreme Court majority who hold that corporate rights equal ours, he would be even more right today.

    As businesspeople, many of us either own corporations (as I do), or work for them. Think about it for just a minute: Is that corporation equivalent to you? Should it have the same rights? If not, it’s time for us “real” people to do something about it.

  3. Gary skoog

    November 1, 2010

    I tend to agree with Fletcher. Currently we are in a financial mess nationally and locally in many places. I have not heard any ‘plan’ or
    discussion on how we can get out of the mess.
    I and the electorate have basically heard how unscrupulous or bad the ‘other’ guy or gal is and not much if any meaningful content upon which to make a decision on a candidate. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say they cannot wait until after the election when all the negativity ends. Is that ant way to hold important elections? People are overly emotionally and rhetorically burdened by the process?

    the only way it will change is for candidates to make a pre-election pledge to debate the issues and refrain from negative attacks on their opponent. i would like to see that happen just one place in the country. If it has, I have not heard about it.

  4. stu mease

    November 1, 2010

    I asked the same question to a political consultant and they said they do it cause it works to get elected. It is more of a product of the voter is not very well informed and believe whatever is out there. I guess they have to get elected first and deal with the cost of being elected after the election if they ever address it.

  5. Ed Burghard

    November 1, 2010

    Here is a follow-up link to the 10 freakiest political ads from this mid-term election period as reported by AdWeek –

  6. Tony Tanner

    November 2, 2010

    I agree with Stu and his political consultant. Political campaigns and their affiliates wouldn’t run the negative ads if they didn’t work. National Enquirer and Jerry Springer have a product they produce that people buy because for the most part, people prefer that type of journalism over important things that matter.

    Chris is right with regard to corporate interest and lobbyists; however, he forgot to include unions. The OEA is the reason our public education system in Ohio and the majority of other states is in the tank. (Find a teacher and ask them for what has been mailed to their homes) Unions use their members dues to spew their political agenda…and members can’t opt out of having their money used that way. Their attacks are much harsher than many of the business leaning groups Additionally, they spend about as much, if not more than their counterparts.

  7. Linda DiMario

    November 2, 2010

    I am deeply distressed at the scope of negative political campaigning but not surprised. History students, like myself, will remember and note that negative campaigning and ads have been at the core of every campaign including Washington’s first one! People marched through the streets with torches proclaiming that Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel was a whore! Although we see ourselves as ‘better angels’. we are in fact, as another comment pointed out, much more moved to action by threat. Negative ads do trigger fear and anxiety and the only anecdote for that is knowlesge! Obviously, the American electorate is not as engaged or informed as we would like. Our democracy depends on people taking their responisbilities seriously. Some say that voting is a right. I debate that and counter with: voting is a responsibility in a democracy.
    Negative campaign ads are a standard but we don’t have to be “educated” or moved by them. We have brains and thumbs to turn the channels! If I thought leveling the playing field with publicly-funded campaigns would work, I would support it…but I think we would still see the same mud-slinging we see now – we would just be paying for it. The answer is “truth in adverising” laws. But with the spewing going on over the internet and social media making accountability and consequences a thing of the past – that train has left the station. Hopefully, this cycle will be replaced with a return to some semblance of responsibility and civility will be returned to our discourse. I can dream, can’t I?

  8. Karen Schultz

    November 3, 2010

    Political candiates should state a possibility and their plan to get there. The rhetoric is less than educated for a highly educated country. They should be ashamed of themselves and their tactics. I want to understand the plan they want to put in place and how that will effect the circle of influence in the large picture results.
    Do they have any insight to qualtiy government? They could all use a copy of an ASQ Management Excellence text, a dose of appreciative inquiry theory and an understanding of federal government, state government and county government.
    US citizens could use the same approach in life. Start standing up for themselves, gain skill sets needed to achieve their life goals to feel productive as a citizen. TAKE part in your local community to improve the relations of your community members. The opportunities are limitless. Those who complain know the problems best and generally have the best answers.
    Stop complaining and get going! Make a difference. Ask why five times for best understanding of the effects of what you do.

  9. Debbie Laskey, MBA

    November 3, 2010

    Thanks for your post, Ed, about negative campaigning – as well as for sharing the weird ads. Here’s a post that raises a similar question about leadership in politics and in general. As William Powell wrote, “The seemingly ever increasing trend [for aspiring and current politicians] to just point out problems is a disheartening view of how many folks do leadership as well.” True leaders emerge when they bring solutions with them to political office AND to the corner office. Here is William Powell’s link:

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