People tend to complain about being bombarded with nasty advertising during presidential elections, and fighting dirty has been a staple of the cycle since way before Nixon was the one. But this year’s crop of political ads seems to be the grimmest yet. Talk about Mourning Again in America: yes, I’m mourning TV spots that actually contain the spark of an idea (never mind soaring rhetoric and visuals!) and some decent art direction.
Almost $500 million has been spent so far, mainly on TV buys in battleground states. What a waste. Considering the brilliant use of social media that President Obama made four years ago, and the elevated look of his Shepard Fairy posters, it’s especially disappointing that his campaign seems to be going so old-school lately.
For many reasons, including the lousy economy and the rise of the Super Pacs, ads from both parties have been almost entirely negative. In this way, they seem almost interchangeable, packaged with the same crude Powerpoint visuals (black-and-white newspaper headlines intercut with stock color photos of average Americans worrying about their bills) with announcers making semi-false claims over the same maudlin musical cues.
After a while, it’s gets numbing, and it’s less like watching politics in action and more like viewing a game of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. If you recall, they were those Mattel-manufactured plastic boxer dudes who were red and blue, conveniently enough, and lived to jab each other endlessly in a plastic ring. Analog precursors to Battlebots, they whaled on each other until one knocked the other’s block off. (Literally. Each had a spring-loaded head that popped off to a “gotcha” sound.)
Except this year, it’s our heads that are exploding. The escalating negativity becomes an arms race, and neither side can blink, especially if one more nasty ad might make a difference in the margins in the swing states. This year, “the persuadables” like Bob in Ohio or Shirley in Florida could actually change the outcome. And so the candidates spend their time looking for donors to contribute millions more for local TV ads, and the bleak cycle continues.
Historically, negative ads have been used to depress turnout. Faced with enough of them, voters become weary, cynical, and just plain disgusted with politics.
On the other hand, negative advertising has its defenders, including Tom Messner, copywriter and founder/partner at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, who actually worked on Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, (aka “Morning in America”) and many others. By contrast, he says that it can actually drive turnout, and that “negative advertising is more believable than positive advertising.” We are naturally attracted to car wrecks, and wired to pay attention to disturbing information, after all.
Messner, whose references tend to be a great deal more highbrow than your typical negative ad would allow, explains that “in the end, political advertising is a benign form of taking power, compared to regicide, Borgia poisonings, Lady Macbethian machinations, or the removal of the Archduke Ferdinand, who would rather have had Karl Rove attack him in a TV spot than Gavrilo Princip.”
Princip was the guy who assassinated the archduke, and inadvertently started the first world war. Within that context, Messner has a point: Karl Rove doesn’t seem so bad.
But back to 21st century advertising. I was talking about the negative phenomenon with Andrew Ault, executive creative director of integrated marketing at NBCUniversal. He mentioned that at many of the ad agencies where he worked in the past, (like Crispin, Porter+Bogusky, and Wieden+ Kennedy,) “the question always was, ‘How can we spend media money in a more effective way?’”
“Why doesn't someone like, say, Obama, take some of that money and immediately do some extraordinary charitable thing with it? Say, pay the salaries of teachers about to get laid off? Save homes in Detroit from foreclosure, or save 100 farm families? Surely, there are many other ways to spend the money that would do some major social good and, therefore, get lots of positive PR for said candidate,” he said.
He then offered the painful example of Meg Whitman spending north of $140 million of her own money to lose the race for governor of California. At the time, I remember thinking that that kind of capital could have put the entire state university system of California back on track and paved the way for thousands of students to get scholarships.
“What is amazing is that neither side sees their abundance of campaign money as a means to do any good at all,” Ault says. “It just seems crazy that candidates will spend millions talking about reducing taxes by millions.”
There are no doubt complex legal issues involved in giving away campaign dough. But why can’t politicians start thinking about a way to make their advertising modern and interactive, to reflect what some of the great brands are doing in terms of building awareness? They could make their forward-looking philanthropic and public service activity be their advertising, and at the same time actually pay back.
Wouldn’t politicians want to be remembered for the social good they did while running, rather than the barrage of negative ads they left behind?. It also might leave some money and time for the old-fashioned pressing of the flesh, shaking hands with voters. Imagine getting to meet the candidate eye-to-eye, without being a donor. It would be a perfect time to thank him or her for not inundating us with depressing negative ads.