"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why Negative Ads Work

In an article in the Washington Post (The Candidates’ Message, 9.8.12) Drew Westin describes political ads as falling into one of four quadrants, the first two positive and the second two negative.  In the first positive quadrant a candidate tells about himself and how his personal values, family history, and especially upbringing are important to understanding how he would govern. 

Barack Obama, for example, in the 2008 campaign was able to capitalize on aspects of this quadrant, for just his skin color was a testimony to his intelligence, drive, and ambition; and how he, therefore, was a prime example of the American Dream.  Rising through adversity made him compassionate, sensitive to the needs of others less fortunate, and a president who would would never forget where he came from.  Except for hardened racists, this was a compelling personal story.

In this election, however, Obama can trade much less on this personal history, for the electorate has four years of his governance to judge who well he did against expectations.  In other words, who he is is less important than what he had done.

Yet Obama has done a reasonable job in marrying the two – i.e. the first quadrant of personal character and history and the second quadrant of positive achievements.  In focusing on the middle class, he has invoked Bill Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain’, and is making a compelling argument for how Democrats, still unalloyed advocates for the less-fortunate, will govern best.  Obama is weakest in this quadrant, however, for many of the achievements he claims are, in the eyes of Republicans, liabilities.  He may have saved General Motors and Wall Street, but he set a troubling precedent of unbridled federal power.  Turning this to his advantage, however, Obama proudly and loudly proclaims, “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead”.

Romney is in the position of the first Obama campaign – he has to populate the first quadrant and introduce himself to the electorate.  He has had a difficult time doing so, because his background, upbringing, education, and religion are far from those of the majority of Americans.   In trying to show how he, despite his silver spoon pedigree, relates to the common man, he has often looked ridiculous.  He has had a difficult time accepting who he is and trusting the intelligence of the rest of the electorate to judge how his patrician background can benefit the country.

Because Obama has depleted the resources available in the first quadrant and is on shaky grounds in the second, it is natural that he would turn negative, attacking both Romney’s background and character (Quadrant 3) and questionable political record (Quadrant 4). He attacks Romney for being out of touch, anachronistic, and retrograde – a man who has no clue about the life of ordinary Americans, and a man who could not possibly have any understanding of let alone empathy for the poor and the downtrodden.  Romney’s political history confirms this, says Obama.  At Bain Capital he was a ‘venture vulture’ in Newt Gingrich’s words, an investment banker who was only driven by profit, who laid off thousands without blinking an eye and who slept well because he had satisfied the One Percent.

Because Romney has nothing relevant in his positive quadrants – he was indeed a child of privilege, and even though he was far more than a compassionate conservative in his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, he cannot say so for fear of alienating his Tea Party base.  Therefore going negative is his only hope.  There is little doubt that his thinly-veiled birther comment was a deliberate attempt to pander to those who really believe that Obama is a black Satan and to stir up the vitriol and bile among those who absolutely, resolutely, and implacably hate the President.  Because of Republicans’ long history of calling everything left of the right fringe ‘socialist’; and because so many people already believe that the President is a demonic communist out to destroy the country, Romney can confidently attack Obama. 

As far as attacking Quadrant 4 achievements, Romney can easily make the link between the bailouts and the stimulus package and Obama’s personal history.  Because he is un-American and suspect, of course he abused federal power and began the inevitable process of depriving Americans of their personal liberties.

There are many compelling reasons why negative attack ads work.

One reason that negative messages are so compelling is that we are emotional creatures, wired to pay attention to harmful information, said Joel Weinberger, a psychologist at Adelphi University in New York and owner of Implicit Strategies, a consulting firm that investigates unconscious influences on behavior.

"Think of our ancestors on the African savannah," he said. "If you miss a leopard, it's over for you. If you miss a deer, oh well, you're hungry. People are more focused on negative information. People stop for a car wreck, but there are no traffic jams for beautiful flowers.” (Emily Sohn, Discovery News, 5.16.12)

Another reason has to do with brain function:

When we pay attention to a message we are engaged in active message processing. When we are distracted or not paying attention we may nonetheless passively receive information. There is some evidence that negative messages may be more likely than positive ones to passively register. They "stick" for several reasons. (Ruthann Lariscy, CNN Opinion, 1.2.12)

The contents of a negative ad are more complex than a positive one, say some researchers, and such complexity forces the brain to slow down and consider the information more carefully:

Every negative ad has at least an implied comparison. If Mitt Romney is "not a true conservative," then by implication the candidate sponsoring the ad is saying he or she is a true conservative. This complexity can cause us to process the information more slowly and with somewhat more attentiveness (Sohn)

Negative ads also benefit from the ‘sleeper effect’.  So many negative ads, sponsored by PACs, candidates, and others, that when in the voting booths, only the image remains, and this may be enough to sway final opinion. Finally our brains are highly reactive to threat, especially when the threat is not immediately countered or refuted:

There's nothing like a sinister portrayal of a greedy, self-centered villain, replete with grainy images and menacing music, to stir up our unconscious minds. (LA Times, Drew Westen, 2.19.12)

So, get used to the slime and muck. It works, and it’s only September.

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