Friday Perspective: Enough Political Attack Ads!

Political attack ad
Political attack ad

I enjoy following elections - local, state, national, doesn't matter. I guess it's my inner love for politics cultivated through years of watching The West Wing coming out. I like the process. I like the strategy that goes into campaigning. I like seeing how candidates position themselves, re-position themselves and react to the surprises that inevitably arise during a campaign.

One thing I don't like is the political attack ads that air endlessly on TV. Do those even work? And if political operatives think they do, what's the evidence? Pointing to polling numbers is inexact science because there are a number of other factors that can contribute to changes in polls. Attack ads are never done in isolation. There are always other activities that accompany them.

I'd like to think the public is smart enough to see through attack ads. The "facts" given in them are never completely accurate. Usually they give only a small part of a much larger picture, misrepresenting statements, votes or facts; at times, they're blatant lies. Whenever I see one of these, I ignore it. Sometimes they even have the reverse effect on me than what's intended - I dislike the candidate doing the attacking rather than the one being attacked. I know many other people who react in similar fashion.

At the beginning of campaigns, candidates often come out against attack ads, vowing not to do it, but they almost always change their position. Either they begin to slip in polls and feel they need to use attack ads to provide a jolt to their campaign or their opponent attacks them and they feel the need to respond. I don't think I've ever seen a completely clean campaign, free of any opponent attacks.

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I've worked with many clients who have extremely aggressive competitors that attack them with various forms of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) in attempts confuse the market. My counsel is always to stay above the fray and not give in to the FUD. Giving in is what the competition wants. If a company is reacting to attacks from their competitors, they're taking their eyes off of whatever proactive plans they were previously executing against. Now they're being reactive, responding to competitive claims rather than proactively spreading their own messages.

The other reason to avoid competitive attacks is that customers don't like seeing it. They want to see you focusing on them rather than focusing on a competitor. I once had a client ignore my counsel and give in to a competitive attack. Once I realized they were dead set on responding, I advised them not to get too aggressive. If you think you absolutely must respond, clarify your position and give supporting evidence. All you want to do is show the claims made by the customer aren't true. Don't attack. They did listen to that counsel, but it was too late - the competitor got what they wanted, a response. That response from my client led to several more instances of back and forth banter through the media and on social media sites, gradually getting more aggressive on both sides. Customers and prospects began to notice and started bashing both companies publicly. "Company A and Company B are too preoccupied with each other to focus on me and my needs. I don't want to buy from either one." The damage was done.

Attacking the competition rarely works because it's not talking to customers, the people you're actually trying to communicate with.

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The same type of FUD I described above is what happens in political attack ads. And the candidates always give in, feeling they need to attack in response. What they forget is those attack ads don't really talk to us, the voters. They simply try to scare us.

What if a candidate spent all their air time focusing on themselves and their platform instead of their opponent? What if we saw truly clean campaigning?

Unfortunately it won't happen because of one reason - money. Most of the attack ads we see aren't produced by a candidate's campaign team. They're produced by a PAC or Super PAC supporting that candidate so the candidate can say they weren't involved in the attacks. But let's be real. The candidate is usually aware and could go to the PACs supporting them and say, "Stop. I don't want to see any of these." But PACs could take offense to the candidate's demand and that could lead to less financial support from those groups. And candidates don't want to do anything that would jeopardize their cash flow.

So while we as voters continue to wish for an end to the attack campaigns, we're unfortunately not likely to see them stop any time soon. It's sad. Eventually I'd like to see a candidate tell me about their platform rather than why their opponent is wrong for me.