Why Attack Ads and Disney Movies Are So Darned Effective

Consumers Like Good Stories; Good Stories Need Good Villains

By Published on .

Tom Denari
Tom Denari
"Why do we have to be so negative?"

"Why can't we just tell people what's great about our guy?"

No matter what you think about the current crop of political candidates, you can be sure that similar discussions have taken place with their campaign consultants -- over and over again. But now, with the mid-term elections screaming toward us, these questions have obviously fallen by the wayside, as political attack ads increase each day closer to Nov. 2. Despite the public's often-stated distaste for negative political ads, these tactics have become the norm for competitive campaigning.

Why? Because they work.

Political attack ads have proven time and again to shift perceptions of our electorate, which is why the D.C. political consultants continue to recommend and execute ads that are often designed to scare and inflame voters. From the 1964 "Daisy" ad that helped Johnson defeat Goldwater, to the Willie Horton ad that Bush used to take down Dukakis, to the Swift Boat ad that helped defeat Kerry, negative political ads have worked for decades -- despite the fact that polling data reports that people are weary of these campaigns.

So, if people say they hate negative ads so much, then why do they work?

The answer is actually pretty simple. Storytelling. The best way to get and keep someone's attention is by telling them a story. And you might say, "That's fine. Why can't our story just be about the positive impact our candidate has had on our community?"

This is where negativity becomes necessary.

Many marketers miss the nuance that a story isn't really a story without conflict. The great stories -- the ones that we remember -- have a common structure, including conflict, tension and ultimately, resolution. The key is conflict. Without it, you have no story.

And, this is where the competitor enters.

Typically, because stories involve overcoming an obstacle or villain of some sort, something, or someone, must be defeated (e.g. the Wicked Witch of the West). Instead of setting up a social issue, like the educational system, as the problem to solve, today's political campaigns continually strive to set up the opponent as the problem to be overcome. Positioning the opponent as the villain, and your candidate as the vanquishing hero, provides a very satisfying resolution.

Disney religiously uses this formula for its children's movies.

Think about it. Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast," Ursula in "The Little Mermaid," Jafar in "Aladdin," and Scar in "The Lion King" are all villains that were conquered by the title-character-turned-hero in each movie. In fact, without the villain, there would be no story -- and no hero.

Has the "villainization" of political candidates gone too far? Certainly. High production values and persuasive storytellers can lead people to believe almost any conclusion, whether or not it's true. But, while the most high-minded candidates fight the urge to retaliate with attack ads of their own, they do so at their own peril -- and the dismay of their strategists -- because they know ads like these can make or break their fate on election day. This cycle is not going to end anytime soon.

What can non-political marketers, trying to position their brands, learn from this dangerous game?

Embrace storytelling.

Welcome conflict.

And, let go of the notion that you should always avoid negative language.

Understand that being "negative" at times can actually be productive and effective. First, the tension created by some level of conflict is what keeps the audience's attention, as they wait for the resolution. If executed responsibly, overcoming that conflict can reinforce the brand's positioning. Some of the most memorable ads of our time have used conflict resolution to not only capture the viewer's interest, but also to deliver a clear message.

Second, comparing a product or service to its competitor can demonstrate clear differentiation. If you're leveraging the opponent's flaws to demonstrate your own strengths, it will be more effective if it's based on truth, fairness and maybe even a sense of humor. Being negative doesn't have to be mean-spirited. If people perceive a negative characterization to be fraudulent or fabricated, it can often backfire and actually reflect poorly on the accuser. Part of the reason that people are drawn to stories of villains being vanquished is that they are also attracted to fairness. Apple effectively walked this tightrope with John Hodgman's apologetic portrayal of PC, as it executed a campaign with equal parts wit and truth that had PC users snickering along with it -- and Microsoft scrambling to find a response.

But finally, if you're looking to set up your brand as hero, defining the appropriate obstacle is critical -- keeping in mind that your competitor may not actually be the villain your brand needs to conquer. Instead, the barrier for your brand might be as simple as "disinterest."

And, for a brand, Disinterest might be the most evil villain of all.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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