21 May 2008  Research & Ideas

Going Negative in Political Advertising

Companies rarely run negative ads against competitors, but political candidates often do. Why the difference? It's a byproduct of our political system's winner-take-all approach, says professor John Quelch. Key concepts include:

  • Negative ads ask us to vote against someone rather than for someone, an approach that sometimes works in political advertising.
  • Companies rarely run negative ads against competitors; typically competitors won't be mentioned at all.
  • In politics the winner takes all, an environment that encourages desperate candidates to go negative.

 

Editor's Note: Harvard Business School professor John Quelch writes a blog on marketing issues, called Marketing Know: How, for Harvard Business Online. It is reprinted on HBS Working Knowledge.

This post is drawn from an article that appeared first in The Washington Times on Sunday, May 10, 2008. For more details, see Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes For Better Democracy by John Quelch and Katherine Jocz (Harvard Business Press 2008).

Choice sells, in politics and in the supermarket. Distinct choices on the shelf attract our attention to a product category, engage and involve us, and increase the chances that we'll make a purchase. In other words, choice drives consumption.

The same is true of the political marketplace. With no incumbent running in the United States, the unprecedented turnouts in primary states reflect the genuine choice that voters see on the ballot. The level of choice and the uncertainty about who will prevail has fueled heavy media coverage and grassroots activism that add to voter interest.

Choice and uncertainty also spawn fierce competition. The result of the winner-take-all political system is that politicians trailing in the polls become more desperate as the day of reckoning approaches. They flood the airwaves with negative ads, especially in closely fought states like Pennsylvania and Indiana where the margin of victory was as important as who wins.

Political brands, on the other hand, are works in progress, and consistency is not always their strong suit.

Negative ads ask us to vote against someone rather than for someone. This lesser-of-two-evils approach to political marketing inevitably breeds cynicism and sometimes backfires, but it often works against new candidates who haven't yet locked down their supporters firmly enough to withstand the barrage. And, with no prospect of another debate to score points, and with Obama trying to stay positive and clinging to the moral high ground by staying positive, the underdog Clinton campaign will remain relentless in its advertising attacks on Obama.

Here are the four types of negative advertisements we've seen from the Clinton campaign:

  • "Fear appeal" ads, such as the 3am phone call, designed to worry voters about Obama's lack of experience.
  • Guilt-by-association ads that include footage of Pastor Wright.
  • The roll-your-own ads that exploit gaffes or contradictions using the candidate's own words.
  • Finally, there is the occasional policy comparison ad that contrasts the two candidates' points of view. But, with minimal policy differences separating Clinton and Obama, the emphasis is inevitably on character and emotion, experience versus change.

In the Republican race, the better-known John McCain used negative ads effectively to bury the better financed Mitt Romney in Florida. These negative ads were complimented by positive ads burnishing McCain's record. The ads ran in the final days before the Florida primary, leaving Romney little time to respond. Finally, McCain used high profile surrogates such as Governor Charlie Crist to reinforce concerns about his opponent.

Why don't companies go negative?

Unlike politicians, companies hardly ever run negative ads. Pepsi ads don't tear down Coke; they build the brand image of Pepsi. Why? Because a tit-for-tat war of words would turn off consumers of both brands. And sales growth, not just market share, is what puts money in shareholders' pockets.

As the market leader, Coke would never give the underdog Pepsi the benefit of a mention in its ads. For its part, Pepsi would worry that negative ads against Coke would say more to consumers about the character of Pepsi than Coke. And when Pepsi did famously "challenge" Coke 20 years ago, it was with blindfolded consumers choosing between two unlabeled samples, as close as you could get to a scientific test.

The Coke and Pepsi formulas are different and they appeal to different consumers, but they are what they are. A Pepsi today is the same as a Pepsi tomorrow. A Pepsi in Boston is the same as a Pepsi in L.A. Political brands, on the other hand, are works in progress, and consistency is not always their strong suit. Nor, based on past evidence, is their ability to deliver on the brand promise, once elected. So, no matter how many voters are turned off, no matter how much ammunition they provide the Republicans in the general election, negative ads will rule the airwaves until the Democrats select their nominee.

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About the author

John Quelch is Senior Associate Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.