Andrew Robertson, CEO and President of advertising giant BBDO, recently spoke at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications about how to make advertising successful. A huge portion of his lecture focused on the principle that feel-good advertising produces astounding positive results for a brand.

Advertising that fosters the production of chemicals like dopamine (the happy hormone) and oxytocin (the hormone connected with trust and love) in the brain tend to pay off extremely well. If this is true, how do we explain the abundance of negative campaign ads? Mars Inc. does not spend big bucks on commercials that bash Snickers candy bar competitors. That just wouldn’t work.

In the chapter “Advertising Strategy” of Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, Shanto Iyengar and Jennifer A. McGrady point out the discrepancy between commercial advertising and candidate advertising, and it becomes evident that Robertson’s main argument on advertising does not always apply to political campaigns. There are examples in which feel-good campaign advertising works to a certain extent, but also examples in which mudslinging pulls in votes. However, Robertson also noted that campaigns based on emotion drive action because we act on instinct and emotion far more than we do on logic. This argument holds true in political campaign advertising. Negative emotions and fear mongering can drive action as well.

As Iyengar and McGrady describe, image spots often highlight what is good about a candidate — why they are a good person, a man of the people, how the candidate will bring hope, or change. I can certainly recall spots that evoke happiness, solidarity and pride like this Barack Obama spot from 2008:

The language does not explicitly pit two groups against each other but is meant to evoke feelings of passion for solidarity. It is more of an image ad for Obama’s campaign than an adversarial issue ad. This kind of political ad is good at first, but can only do so much in terms of calling voters to action that are not already sold on one candidate.

Political advertising is used to get people to pick a side. Iyengar and McGrady explain that candidates are mostly interested in reaching voters whose candidate and issue preferences may be pivotal to the outcome of the race. The group described is not likely to be swayed by a positive political advertisement, with images of rolling waves of grain, the waving American flag and a calming voice over about a united America.

Comedian Jon Stewart explains this concept jokingly in an old segment called “Good or Bad?” that makes fun of a particular news network that rushes correspondents into declaring if the news situation is good or bad. As Stewart put it, viewers want to know, “Does this go into my happy bag, or my sad bag?” so they can make a decision about the issue. This is exactly why we have negative advertising. The viewers are more likely to be influenced by a powerful issue ad explicitly advocating one candidate over the other. Here is an example from the North Carolina senatorial campaign in 2014.

The video explicitly states that “Thom Tillis is terrible for education in North Carolina.” According to Stewart’s video, this might go in viewers’ “sad bag”. Robertson’s claim that ads are successful that evoke feelings of happiness, attachment and love does not apply here. More so his more general argument that emotion drives action; this ad probably caused many parents to question the way electing Thom Tillis would affect their children’s education (even though he did end up winning the election). Fear drives action possibly more than happiness in political elections.

Because political campaign ads are localized rather than distributed nationwide, negative advertising is acceptable because only the areas that are not heavily Democratic or Republican will see them, sort of restricting the negative mudslinging to those areas. Only the groups whose votes are supposedly affected by the advertising will see the ads.

Another reason why negative advertising is acceptable and successful in political campaigns is partly because of money. According to Iyengar and McGrady, candidates get the most return on investment on their advertisements when their campaign makes the news, which influences the content of their advertising. They need to feature something in their spot that will make the news, and that topic is not always positive.

Time is another factor that makes negative advertising work in political campaign ads and not commercial ads. The Snickers bar is not going anywhere, but 2008 may have been John McCain’s last chance to run for president, and he only had a couple months really to make an impact with his advertising. Because of the time and money constraint, each ad has to make a great impact. This is why campaigns gravitate toward issue ads that pit candidates against each other and take on personal attacks. Likewise, Iyengar and McGrady explain wedge appeals, possibly the most negative campaign ads of all, a last ditch effort to snatch up votes when a candidate knows they are losing — and it usually works.  This losing candidate often plays upon stereotypes and fears such as immigration threatening “our” chances of employment.

Although we may not see many negative advertisements in the commercial industry, negative political advertisements aren’t going anywhere. Despite widespread dislike, they drive results.


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