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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