Things are getting rather nasty in the political world. As we approach Election Day in the United States, candidates are spending incredible amounts of money, much of it on negative advertising.
One of my favorite examples is from Illinois senatorial candidate Alexi Giannoulias. He is airing a spot this week that calls his opponent Mark Kirk a dishonest liar. The ad features voters attacking Kirk: “His whole political career is probably a lie” and “I would not trust him with my left shoe.”
You can watch the commercial here:
This is unpleasant business. Many of the negative ads are distortions; the ads twist statements and make unsupported and sometimes totally false accusations.
So should a candidate run negative ads? Or should they stick with more a positive and upbeat message?
My advice is clear: stick with the negative ads, for two reasons.
First, in an election, a candidate needs 51% of the vote. One way to get votes is to put forth compelling policies and ideas. The other way is to make your opponent seem like a more unappealing choice. People are skeptical of politicians, so positive messages often fall flat. Negative messages can connect since they reinforce a natural skepticism.
Second, the best way to respond to a negative campaign is with a negative campaign. In an election, if your opponent calls you a crook, your only hope is to call them a crook. This negates the message; all the candidates are now crooks. Defending your reputation, “I am not a crook” only reinforces the accusation.
There is a limit, of course. I don’t support false ads and distortions. I also don’t support personal attacks on someone’s character or family. I think Alexi’s ad is over the line.
But candidates have to fight for votes during an election, and later they will have to fight to get anything done. Negative advertising can be a powerful marketing tool in a campaign.