I shudder to think of how much CO2-removing flora were sacrificed to create this year’s campaign detritus. Every day, mounds of slick flyers landed in my mailbox (and destined for immediate disposal). While a precious few touched on issues that matter, the vast majority blared the dire consequences to all of humanity should even one vote be cast for that candidate’s opponent.
The deluge of mailers and other advertisments seemed especially heavy this year—an apparent result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 that lifted restrictions on independent political advertising. The onslaught has prompted much sturm und drang among the electorate, especially over negative ads.
With voter approval of politicians, particularly Congress, at historic lows, coupled with anger over negative ads, you’d think candidates would insist upon a clean fight focused on issues that matter to their constituents. And yet, that’s rarely what’s been served these past months.
The question for communications professionals is, why?
Turns out the science isn’t clear on whether negative messaging works. Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, noted on Scientific American’s website that 20 years of research hasn’t found the answer. One study found negative ads were more memorable, while another found the impact of any advertising—positive or negative—didn’t last long enough to carry to the voting booth.
“Although evidence on the effectiveness of negative political ads is inconclusive, campaign consultants clearly believe in their power, which explains why negative ads are so often used,” wrote Green.
As communicators, we employ strategies that have measurable outcomes. Yet this is an example where the ends shouldn’t justify the means. True, some criticism is necessary to distinguish one candidate from another. But vicious character attacks go beyond the pale, regardless of political persuasion.
Sadly, the take-no-prisoners approach has been a trait of our political process since its inception. Even so, I hope the politicians and communicators of the next election cycle will find ways to engage voters’ minds instead of trying to stoke their paranoia.