Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Will negative ads backfire? I’m not convinced

As sure as the sun never sets on the British Empire, at some point the Conservatives are going to unleash a barrage of negative anti-Ignatieff ads. You can take it to the bank.

The Liberal response, as articulated well by Michael Ignatieff yesterday, is to laugh it off while contrasting the Harper penchant for negativism with both Barrack Obama’s positive approach in the US, and the spectre of a government slinging mud while we’re in economic crisis. Liberal national director Rocco Rossi expands on the theme:

He also said Mr. Harper will be judged a "Fauxbama" if he plays highly partisan ads when Canadians want their politicians to work together - the politics of non-partisanship as espoused by U.S. President Barack Obama.

"If there is one lesson of the Obama experience," Mr. Rossi said, "it is that people want to be part of politics that matters. ... Mr. Harper tried to tap into that stream a bit during Mr. Obama's recent visit to Ottawa.

"If Mr. Harper reverts to spending millions of taxpayer-subsidized dollars on attack ads in the middle of an economic crisis, he will prove himself to be Fauxbama and Canadians will punish him for it."

I’ve heard this from other Liberal spinmiesters as well, that Canadians will punish Conservatives for negative advertising. But I’m not convinced there will be a backlash.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d like there to be one. I’ll be working hard to raise the issue. I do think that the ads will likely be ineffective, for a number of reasons. Ignatieff had had a chance to get his feet wet, we’ll hit back hard which we didn’t do when they went after Stephane Dion, Michael isn’t Stephane, and the economy and Obama have lessened the appetite for these sorts of attacks somewhat.

But this talk of a post-partisan era has always been laughable. Even one-party states have partisanship. And partisanship isn’t bad. It’s an important part of the system.

Anyway, I think the best we can hope for is for any negative ads to be ineffective. We should definitely work to drive a backlash, because it would absolutely be ridiculous for the Conservatives to be spending taxpayer-subsidized dollars attacking the opposition leader when they should be focusing on an economic crisis.

But when was the last time we saw a backlash for a negative ad? It would have to have been the Conservatives’ Chretien face ad in 1993. And the backlash only came after they pulled the ad; early tracking showed it was moving the polls for the PCs.

The fact is parties go negative because, generally, it works. Neutering the ads would be a good outcome. I wouldn’t bet on a backlash. Not without a strong counter-campaign from our side to stick it to them.

Which, hopefully, is in the drawer of our ad agency somewhere.*

ELSEWHERE: More from Far and Wide and Impolitical.

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1 comment:

Mark Richard Francis said...

I agree, BCer.

The (sad but true) science behind PR says that people tend to come to accept opinions as fact, even when given to them through attack ads, because though they remember the depicted stereotype, they forget at a day-by-day cognitive level where they learned the 'fact' from.

Push the 'fact' enough, and it becomes common knowledge, and soon enough, people are reinforcing the message among themselves.

Later, further attack ads on the same theme serve to reinforce the stereotype, with people actually agreeing with the ads because they already hold the same opinion -- an opinion they hold because of previous attack ads, though they tend to forget that that is where they got the opinion from.

Effective responses to attack ads are in two forms.

1. Counter the negativity with positive messaging.

2. Attack the other guy so hard, he looks worse.

In practice, you run both.

The effect of these tactics is to perpetuate the belief that all politicians are scum. It diminishes us all, and turns our elections into popularity contests.

Politics in Canada is going to get a lot dirtier before it gets better, if ever.

I suspect this will be Harper's true legacy.