Roger Marolt: Roger This
November 19, 2010
It seems like the more we loath negative political advertising the more of it we get. And, the less we can do about it.
If you feel like this election season was worse than ever, you are not alone. My friend Lori and I complained back and forth about it one afternoon, and she later showed up at my house with a giant shopping bag 12 1/2 pounds full of political pamphlets she had sifted from the mail box for two weeks before the election, after she had gotten fed up stuffing the post office trash can with it every day for at least a month before that.
I thanked her for the thoughtful gift and set to work. I started sorting it to analyze it, and then a pertinent thought occurred: This could take all afternoon. I swept up the mess and fed it to the dumpster to become landfill fodder with the other estimated 8 billion pounds of junk mail our country files there every year. I decided to rely on professional research instead.
What I found is disturbing, if not surprising: Negative messages work! “The Sleeper Effect and Negative Political Advertising,” published in Journal of Advertising by Spencer F. Tinkham in 1999, found that “numerous information processing and judgmental decision-making studies indicate that individuals weigh negative information more heavily than positive information and are more likely to remember it.”
Among the study’s key findings:
• If an attack ad stands alone, unanswered, it is effective.
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• If an attack is refuted, the attack will, ultimately, still be effective.
• Even if an attacker damages his or her own credibility making an attack, the attack message itself will still have a positive impact for the attacker over time.
And the most disheartening of all:
• If attacked, the best defense for the victim seems to be a strong, swift offense (i.e., to attack back).
The researchers also found that the only real risk in running a negative campaign is to launch a “final hour” attack campaign too close to the election so that voters are initially turned off by the attacker before the effectiveness of the negative ad can sink in. Apparently it takes our minds a little while to be taken over by innuendo and lies.
The report concludes: “After this study of over-time impact, we conclude, albeit unhappily, that negative messages are risky only in the short term; that any initial damage done to the attacker, either through an effective defense mounted by the target or by initial low credibility ratings from voters who do not like attackers, will not last. Damage to an attacker is but temporal.”
So, I wondered, if this type of advertising works so well why doesn’t everyone from Apple to Peach’s Corner Cafe use it? Can you see it? “Starbucks doesn’t care about acute diarrhea! We are your local coffeehouse and we approve this message.” Forget your gut reaction. Research shows that after your stomach settles you’ll be more likely to guzzle the dark roast at Peach’s.
It turns out there are good answers to these questions. First, the Communication Act of 1934 basically said that broadcasters can refuse to run all deceptive advertising … except for political commercials. Although this ruling seems to accept that political advertising will be deceptive, it nonetheless bars media outlets’ from censoring it. Second, while there are various regulations that prohibit false advertising and marketing campaigns that might promote activities deemed harmful to the public (e.g. tobacco and hard alcohol consumption), there are strong social forces that favor the open exchange of political ideas and which oppose government’s hand in them. Free debate trumps good health, thus we are left to deal with tortuous ads on television, radio and newspapers every election season. Third, public personas traditionally have much less legal protection against libel and slander than average citizens. Basically, the courts seem to feel that politicians deserve what they get, and who can argue with that? Lastly, the U.S. Bill of Rights poses some problems when it comes to attempts at regulating political speech. If only our forefathers had known…
So, what can we do to stop the onslaught of political crap that jams our mailboxes, dominates the cable, inundates the airwaves, overwhelms our phone lines and dilutes the views from our roadways? I am sorry to say that there is probably nothing. We might be able to drop out of the political process, but we can’t remove ourselves from the technology that delivers the junk. This inescapable barrage of garbage is yet another reminder of the freedom we give up in embracing the efficiency we gain from and the fun we have with technological advances in communications.
It is enough to incite insanity to have no control over this process. It sweeps us up and carries us with it. We can’t get out of the current, no matter how we feel about being manipulated by it. Wherever we go, whatever station we tune to, whichever magazine or newspaper we pick up, the bad ads are there. We have to hear the ever-present “voice,” but can’t respond. We can’t tell it to stop. We can’t tell it to go back to hell. The fact that research shows that I am swayed by its negativity is cause for even greater fear. Negative advertising works, and I am sure we are going to be seeing more of it in our lives. Mind warp: It’s not just for election cycles anymore.
Big Brother doesn’t have to spy on me. He knows enough by following the research. All he has to do is wheedle his sanctioned and protected one-way communication into every aspect of my life. Then, as studies prove, he can eventually get me to vote how he wants, precisely because he is the worst of the worst. This is how he will take over. As much as I hate him, I can’t stop him. Frightening.
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