Marketers Could Learn From Negative Political Ads: Keep It Simple

If Negative Advertising Works So Well in the Political Arena, Why Don't Consumer Marketers Use the Same Technique More Often?

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If negative advertising works so well in the political arena, why don't consumer marketers use the same technique more often? After all, voters and consumers are the same people.

Maybe it's because political ad guys get more practice. Much of their work is focused on destroying the opponent, and they spend a lot of time digging up dirt.

Consumer marketers, on the other hand, like to entertain us or dazzle us with elaborate productions that sometimes leave what's being sold in question.

In a New Yorker article on political advertising, Jane Mayer shows how political-ad operatives unrelentingly home in on the opposition. One such expert, Larry McCarthy, did the infamous Willy Horton ad that demolished Michael Dukakis' campaign. Mr. McCarthy, Ms. Mayer writes, "is known for his ability to distill a complicated subject into a simple, potent and usually negative symbol." The simple and potent part of the equation is what often eludes consumer advertisers.

What's more, Mr. McCarthy's ads "often have the crude look of a hastily assembled PowerPoint presentation. They feature hokey graphics -- key criticisms are highlighted with neon-yellow stripes -- and a heavy-handed use of black-and-white to lend a sinister cast to images. . . . But when they hit their mark they are dazzlingly effective."

Chevy Silverado ad
Chevy Silverado ad

When product marketers do work up the courage to mention competitors, they often do it in an elaborate scenario. Chevy's Silverado trucks took on Ford F150s in the Super Bowl, but the spot seems to have generated more interest in Ford. According to Kelley Blue Book, we reported, more visitors checked out the Ford truck area on Kelley's website than visited the section devoted to Chevrolet trucks. Part of the problem is that the Chevy commercial's premise -- that Silverado owners survived the apocalypse more successfully than Ford truck owners -- was so elaborate that viewers had a hard time figuring out who the ad was for.

I was also confused about a spot for Alka Seltzer Plus that disparages NyQuil's cold-symptom ingredients. When the Alka Seltzer Plus package talks to the NyQuil package I wasn't sure, at least initially, who was saying what about whom.

My old friend Dean Fritchen (a former Ad Council and Metromedia executive) thinks that another reason marketers don't use negative ads is they could end up disparaging the entire category. If one mayonnaise maker knocks another mayo, it might make consumers wary of all such products. That's what attack ads have done for Republican presidential candidates as one after another fall out of favor after being hit with a barrage of negative ads.

What that indicates to me is that neither political candidates nor many consumer products stand for much in the eyes of voters or buyers. Buyers of consumer brands are switching at a high rate, according to an Accenture study.

President Barack Obama certainly shows flexibility, although not the kind his "Change we can believe in" slogan envisioned. "The premise of the Obama campaign was unusual," Ryan Lizza writes in another article in The New Yorker. His campaign slogan "wasn't just about a set of policies; it was more grandiose. Obama promised to transcend forty years of demographic and ideological trends and reshape Washington politics. In the past three years, though, he has learned that the Presidency is an office uniquely ill-suited for enacting sweeping change. Presidents are buffeted and constrained by the currents of political change. They don't control them."

What worries me is that presidents and consumer brands seem to be the captives of outside forces -- "The consumer is boss" excuse from marketers, and the lament from politicians that they don't control "the currents of political change."

So who's in charge here?

At least President Obama and most brands started out believing in something, even though those annoying outside forces can take away control of their own destiny. But it gets worse when you're a blank slate, standing for whatever new identity is thrust upon you.

That's the rather pathetic situation with Bank of America. The bank stands ready to assume whatever stack of attributes a new ad agency can conjure up for them. "A briefing document circulated to agencies last month stated that B of A needs a strategic positioning that can serve as a "North Star' for all business and marketing decisions and convey that the bank is in the midst of a transformation," we reported recently. The bank is also looking for "a deeper sense of purpose, one that can withstand any potential dings to brand reputation," we added. And most pathetic: "B of A doesn't seem sure of exactly what it wants, but it's eager to find a new marketing direction fast."

No matter how inspiring the words, they will ring empty unless everyone at B of A embraces them as their values and purpose. And that , of course, takes time and commitment. And consistency.

Back in 1987 when Ad Age published an issue on the 150th anniversary of Procter & Gamble, we quoted then Chairman John Smale about the importance of communicating the values of the company. One of the major challenges of management, he told us, is to "make sure that managers understand those values and live by them."

What makes P&G successful, Mr. Smale said, "is to be able to embrace the talents of every person working in the company, to really get everything they've got to give, to contribute. We're not perfect at it, but we're very conscious of how important it is , and we spend a lot of time and effort trying to be sure that that 's what's going on."

Most companies don't have the longevity and patience of P&G. So they need an edge, and I'd wager they'd use attack ads to pummel the competition if they thought it wouldn't hurt their own brand as well as the other guy.

I read that a new Super PAC has been formed to go after incumbents in both parties rather than focusing on one opponent. So why couldn't competitors of mayonnaise, say olive-oil producers, form a Super PAC to point out the disadvantages of mayo? The Supreme Court upheld the sanctity of free speech in political discourse, so why wouldn't that decision apply to commercial free speech?

Just asking.

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