Beware the power of the negative

When I reviewed the Corzine negative, I didn’t actually talk at all about negative ads.

There’s the conventional wisdom about them that goes something like this: Everybody hates negative ads, but negative ads are the only things that can really move people and change numbers in a campaign.

So, you’re an incumbent down in the polls, let’s say you’re the Governor of New Jersey for the sake of argument. Go negative, move numbers — heck, your approval’s at 41%, can’t get any worse can it? You drive voters away from your opponent, and they end up either staying home or voting for you as the best of bad options.

Besides the obvious issue that this approach probably is a big part of the reason people hate politicians so much (not their politician, mind, you, just the general class of public servants). There’s also another price to be paid: Going negative tends to drive up your negative as well as your opponent’s.

It’s a dangerous decision in any campaign when to go negative. Of course, that’s assuming your general good enough/adequate negative ad — the garden variety negative you see most days in political campaigns. The big two no-no’s of negative ads are: 1) Over reaching: Saying more than you can legitimately prove; and  2) Attacking on something that’s not relevant to people’s lives or not making it relevant to their lives.

Like this new ad against Judge Sotomayer.

Look, I’m obviously not the audience for this ad, but seriously, do people really think Ayers is a “terrorist”? Are people ready to believe that Sotomayer supports terrorists? It’s a claim that’s so outrageous you’d better be able to prove it, and they can’t (and don’t).

There’s a new line of thought on negatives, which I think is true, that goes something like this: “People don’t hate negative ads, they hate bad ads.” (BTW, the author of the article is also the person responsible for the “Call me Harold” ad in Tennessee. While I actually think the ad was not something I would ever run, I agree with his take on negative ads.) Take this ad for example:

Oh, you were expecting a political ad, oops, my bad. A negative well done, that resonates, is like a ripple in pond. These Mac v. PC ads are perfect examples of that effect. Becoming a social phenomena that people actually seek out.

It’s always easier to activate fear and hate in viewers — that’s the way our brains are hardwired. But, if you can activate other emotions, humor for example, then you have a chance of avoiding some of the fallout from your attacks.

Something to remember next time you get that negative script and start thinking dark backgrounds, bad music, and fuzzy pictures.

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