Andrea Fjeld
Andrea Fjeld
Associate Editor

When Political Ads Attack, Everyone Loses

With additional reporting by Adam Uhrynowski.

We’re all familiar with mudslinging in political commercials, debates and speeches. In the recent Iowa caucuses, negative advertising was more apparent than ever. But why do America’s leaders spend so much time pointing out the competition’s flaws and defending their political (and personal) histories rather than promoting themselves? Does it even work? What if brands reverted to this tactic? We’ll answer these questions and more after the jump.

In a recent debate, war raged between Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich as the Mitt Romney, the “inevitable nominee,” took to Twitter to trash talk Obama. Later, all guns were pointed at Romney in New Hampshire.

The GOP is in full-on attack mode. However, the majority of voters claim to dislike mudslinging politicians. In fact, there can even be a “boomerang effect,” where the politician touches too many personal subjects and the efforts reflect negatively on him.

Attack ads are bad. Bad in politics, bad for brands.

With all this negativity flying back and forth from candidate to candidate (again, many of whom are on the same side), it reminds us how brands get caught up in the same type of positioning. Like the horrors of World War II and Vietnam, the Cola Wars left us all scarred in the ’80s. We distinctly remember Bronson “Don’t Call Me Balki” Pinchot setting up shop in a mall kiosk and telling people why they shouldn’t drink Coke. But the message was lost. All we took away from those commercials was that Pepsi hated Coke and it didn’t have enough faith in its own product to let the can stand on its own.

Granted, this happens all the time with brands. McDonald’s took on Burger King in a subtle and cute way in this German advertisement for the fast food chain. Sure, it was peppered with smiling children and upbeat music, but the message was still the same: McDonald’s is so much better than the competition that bullies won’t attack a lonesome child whose mother is too busy to make him a respectable lunch when they think he’s eating Burger King. You’ll find the potshots taken across the board. Car companies have struck blows across the bow on thousands of occasions such as this commercial from BMW attacking Audi. And while many times you’ll find that the brands are able to get their messaging across, it’s often at the expense of their competition. The best way to advertise is to advance your brand’s story by demonstrating why your product is the best on the market, not at taking cheap shots at companies you’re up against. The best advertising doesn’t involve kicking your competitors but, instead, defining who and what your brand is and why consumers learn more about your services. In other words, let your products speak for themselves. The same could be said for politics. Why risk alienating those who don’t like your attack ads, when you could gain political supporters by taking the higher road and showcasing why you deserve to be elected?

Negative advertising is a sort of “underdog game,” says Professor Julie Hennessy in Advertising Age—the stakes are too high for bigger brands that risk drawing attention to lesser competitors that consumers might be unfamiliar with.

It’s a little bit different in politics, as most candidates already have their names in the news. But, especially when it comes to personal and family issues, politicians had better zip their lips: Voters hate low blows (like calling out Gingrich’s three marriages). However, pointing to a candidate’s flawed voting record—meaning sticking to the important facts—can have the reverse effect.

The way we see it, it’s like your mama always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But that old adage hasn’t really sunk into the world of politics. Why tell a negative story?

CNN says so much money and time is spent on attack ads because they work. The article claims that negative information is more memorable than positive. So, basically, when the country gets in the voting booths they’re being asked choose the lesser of two evils. Whom they hate the least. That’s pretty messed up.

Brands and politicians alike should remember that they’re telling their own (positive) stories, not the stories of others. That way consumers know what you offer—not what your competition lacks.



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  • Anonymous

    Funny this writer clearly has never studied the history of American Political Campaigns(look at what was said about Abe Lincoln, or perhaps what people accused Warren Harding of doing (think Edwards). 

    The writer is somehow equating brand/product advertising and political advertising. It is far different and it always has been. That said during the cola wars Coke and Pepsi share increased. But I guess that really isn’t all that important. The facts be damned.
    Third the writer assures us that she will have answers to this conundrum after the jump. But where is the answer? Is it in this eloquent statement?  ”So, basically, when the country gets in the voting booths they’re being asked choose the lesser of two evils. Whom they hate the least. That’s pretty messed up.” That’s pretty messed up? Not sure what is more “messed up”, the horrible syntax or the complete lack of original (or even organized) thought.


    How on earth can you compare the cola wars to Vietnam or World War 2. How expected from someone who’s closest run in to war has been watching someone play Call Of Duty. And as pointed out below you clearly have no awareness of the long history of decidely nasty political campaign. The bigger question is this (and please note this is fact based so you might want to ignore). If Advertising is dead why has average household TV viewing increased 12% from 2000?

  • Anonymous

    Negative political campaigning does have it’s place probably today more than ever. Congress has the lowest public approval rating in history. This shows we cannot afford to place people into office who are incompetent or from their past mistakes which can show up again once it’s too late.

    People need jobs and this should be #1 on Americans minds and on the best qualified’s platform who ever that may be. That is one of main reasons I brought out a new micro jobs site,

  • Adam Uhrynowski

    Forgive our perhaps excessive use of hyperbole and intentionally jarring comparisons to make a point. You’ve got us there. And we do know our history — you are correct that vitriol in American political campaigns goes back a ways — far beyond Edwards and Harding back to Grover Cleveland (who, to his credit, admitted to the lovechild he was accused of fathering and won the election in part based on his honesty) and even founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — with of course the most famous consequence of negative campaigning being the bullet from Burr that ended Alexander Hamilton’s life, not just career. And world historians will find similar wars of campaign-like propaganda fought back in ancient Rome.

    So yes, it’s nothing new. Our take was merely that it has casualties (especially when it happens within the family, as most would agree is happening in this year’s political contest more so than in recent years, where there has been a modicum of courtesy) — and that the political infighting that has garnered so much press this season has a longer parallel in the advertising world, where brands in recent years have demonstrated an increased willingness to take each other out rather than prop up their own image. Either way, it doesn’t work with consumers in the long term.

    Thanks for your comments!