WHAT'S WRONG WITH NEGATIVE ADS?

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Don't hold your breath that politicians, the next time around, will rely any less on negative advertising, or that marketers, during the next Olympics, will forsake "ambush" marketing tactics.

The simple reason, of course, is they work. And besides, what's wrong with politicians and marketers using them? The airwaves, up until the closing moments of the Nov. 8 election, were jammed with negative TV spots for candidates of every stripe. Republicans, emboldened by the attack philosophy of new House Speaker Newt Gingrich, pummeled Democrats on such basic issues as crime, spending, welfare-and it worked, overwhelmingly.

The Republicans made the election a referendum against the Democrats, and the Democrats couldn't hide. The Democrats tried to portray the huge Republican vote as anti-Washington, anti-Congress, but not one incumbent Republican went down to defeat.

Candidates are not consumer products. They are living, breathing people with the foibles and frailties of all of us. There is much more to say about your opponent-what he or she believes in, his or her public record-than what an advertiser can say about a can of peas.

And so politicians will always attack the record of the other guy. It's the best way of differentiating one candidate from another. Since political ads naturally emphasize the positive things candidates have done in their own ads, the opponents' negative ads legitimately tell the other side. One guy says he's tough on crime; his opponent then asks why he doesn't favor the death penalty?

I grant you there's a fine line between attacking the other candidates' views in a manner deemed acceptable to the voters and negative ads that border on character assassination, or bad taste. Jeb Bush may have crossed that line in Florida. Political observers agree that Bush was hurt by a closing ad showing an anguished mother of a murdered daughter complaining that Gov. Chiles was soft on crime. "Chiles' negative ads worked. Jeb Bush's negative ads didn't work," a Florida political scientist told USA Today. So what's new? That's how it goes with consumer goods advertising, too.

The ad community wants to put lots of distance between product ads and political ads. But both use negative tactics-witness the way Visa and American Express are going at it.

Are products, any more than politicians, supposed to turn the cheek when rival products or rival candidates say bad things about them? What's wrong with American Express refuting Visa's claim head to head. And when Visa contends, as it probably will in the 1996 Olympics, that the Olympics only takes the Visa card, why shouldn't American Express point out that Visa paid a lot of money for the privilege? Or, for that matter, advertisers who are not Olympic sponsors saying that they, too, subscribe to the Olympic ideals?

The marketplace, and the political hustings, are not pristine, above-the-battle environments. Products as well as politicians have the right to dispense their message-as long as it's accurate and truthful-in any way they see fit. Consumers and voters will decide if they buy into it.

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