November 1, 2006


Attacking Voters (ANDREW FERGUSON, November 1, 2006, NY Sun)

There's a saying among political consultants popularized by the Republican ad man Mike Murphy: The difference between a positive ad and a negative ad is that the negative ad has a fact in it.

This bit of folk wisdom has recently found academic support. In an original and thoroughly refreshing book published early this year, "In Defense of Negativity," the Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer undertook a definitive survey of negative advertising.

The poor man viewed almost every presidential-campaign television commercial aired since 1964, positive and negative alike, and arrived at an unexpected conclusion: The negative ads were better.

Being an academic, Mr. Geer had to define "better" with some precision. He had four criteria to distinguish good ads from bad. The best ads discuss pertinent political issues, have a relatively high degree of specificity, rely on documentation to make their point, and raise questions that the public itself considers important.

By each measure, the negative ads scored higher than the positive ads. We have long known that negative ads usually "work" in the elemental sense of helping to elect the candidate who airs them. Now it turns out that negative ads work for self-government too.

"The demands of attack ads are different from positive ads," Mr. Geer says. "The threshold is higher. You need documentation and support. If a candidate just attacks, without documentation to back it up, it rebounds against the attacker and he looks like a fool."

Negative ads, to be effective, also have to be specific.

"If your opponent says, ‘I want to grow the economy. I want the best education for our children,' you can't just say, ‘No, he wants to shrink the economy. He wants a terrible education for our kids," Mr. Geer says. "You have to get into policy — you have to say why his policies will hurt education or the economy. That forces negative ads to be more substantive."

On the other hand, positive ads — so beloved by the schoolmarms and moralizers in the commentating community — are often much more slippery.

As always with Mr. Ferguson, the payoff comes in his final line.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2006 8:27 AM

"The difference between a positive ad and a negative ad is that the negative ad has a fact in it."

Those radio ads in VT that Rich Tarrant was getting beaten for are a good example. He was accused (by NPR!) of using smear tactics when, in reality, all he was doing was using Saint Bernard's own insane votes against him.

Posted by: Bryan at November 1, 2006 9:11 AM

Dems cry foul when videos and audios of their own words are used against them.

Posted by: erp at November 1, 2006 12:07 PM

So what about two famous ads - LBJ's little girl plucking petals off a daisy and Reagan's bear in the woods ad - both negative, both effective, and nary a fact in either?

Posted by: jd watson at November 1, 2006 12:58 PM

The bear ad was notoriously ineffective. They pulled it because viewers had no idea what it meant.

Posted by: oj at November 1, 2006 1:53 PM

According to Theodore White in "Making of a President"

Goldwater's troubles began with an October 1963 press conference at which he said that NATO's six divisions could "probably" be cut by one-third or more if NATO commanders had the power to decide to use tactical nuclear weapons. His repeated attempts to clarify his position, such as introducing the term "conventional nuclear weapons," only muddied it more. Goldwater had already appeared to support battlefield use of nuclear weapons in his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative, in which he urged the United States to "perfect a variety of small, clean nuclear weapons

In addition Goldwater was a defender and supporter of Curtis LeMay in the McNamarra Pentagon. LeMay is said to be the first person to use the phrase "bomb them back to the stone age" in reference to Vietnam. So the daisy ad does have a glimmer of fact.

Posted by: h-man at November 1, 2006 2:34 PM

In fact, the notion that he'd bomb the commies was harmless. Recall that George Wallace--who was no dummy politically--took LeMay as his running mate.

Posted by: oj at November 1, 2006 2:41 PM

Re his final line: I've been in Arkansas for a couple of weeks, and one thing has really struck me about the campaign ads. So many of them feature a guy dressed up in hip-waders and/or a camouflage outfit walking thru a field and saying, "I have your values, vote for me."

The two things that get me are: 1) The party affiliation is rarely mentioned or shown (this invariably means he is a Democrat), and 2) I ask myself, "Do they really think Arkansas voters are so stupid that they'll vote for a guy just because he claims to hunt & fish?"

Posted by: ray at November 1, 2006 3:25 PM

Ray: Sadly yes...

Posted by: Bartman at November 1, 2006 3:51 PM

The two best political ads I ever saw were the bloodhounds looking all over Kentucky for Walter Huddleston (when Mitch McConnell beat him for the Senate seat) and Trent Lott's response to a Dem attack ad that he used a black driver (the man himself went on camera and explained all his duties - he was a state trooper assigned to protect then Congressman Lott - he was angry at being called a 'driver' and looked right at the lens and said he wasn't a chump).

The other historical ad to remember was when the GOP ran the ad in 1980 with the Tip O'Neill lookalike dismissimg the empty tank of gas, just before the car conked out.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 1, 2006 10:12 PM