The Negative Option


Just in time for the “Dion Tax Trick” attack ads, my column in the current issue of Maclean’s defending negative advertising. Related: Jamie has a nice post about the death of Tony Schwartz, the creator of the infamous Daisy ad that Lyndon Johnson used to beat Goldwater.

This is a good opportunity to clear up a possible confusion in my argument. Even though I defend negative advertising, and Warren Kinsella defends negative advertising, and I quote Kinsella to that effect in my column, I actually don’t think that negative advertising succeeds for the same reasons that Kinsella thinks it does.

In the War Room, Kinsella argues that attack ads work, basically, because they’re true, and telling the hard truths about your opponent is an effective way of winning. In contrast – he says – attack ads that aren’t based in relevant, public facts will backfire, the most notorious example being the Tory ad making fun of Chretien’s facial deformity.

Except as Jamie points out, the problem with the Daisy ad is that “it’s specifically designed to deny the possibility of a response from the other side, because it has nothing to do with issues or even politics. It’s just a minute’s worth of “being blown up is bad.””

Exactly right. Which makes it even more ironic that Kinsella named his consulting company “Daisy”, in honour of Johnson’s attack ad.


UPDATE: Over at his blog, Warren Kinsella accuses me of getting it wrong, like “every journalist since time immemorial”. Why? Oh, because the Daisy ad does nothing more than “tell the truth” about Goldwater. Whatever – I happen to think the ad was an outrageous distortion, Kinsella obviously disagrees. Fine; reasonable people can disagree etc.

But then Kinsella can’t resist engaging in his usual game of scattergun accusations and truth-bending. Not only am I wrong about the ad, I’m wrong about why he named his company “Daisy”. Sure, the ad was part of it, but it’s also from the Great Gatsby says Warren. Again, fine. Except that’s not what it says on the company’s website.

It’s a nice rhetorical trick: “My opponent is wrong about one thing — oh, and also wrong about some completely irrelevant issue that I have pulled out of my ass. But now he’s wrong on two things. How can you trust this man on anything?”


The Negative Option

  1. I should add that there is an interpretation of the “Daisy” ad that fits in with Kinsella’s theory — namely that it reminded people of why they were uncomfortable with Goldwater’s rhetoric on nuclear war. (At one point he had joked that we should lob a nuke into the men’s room at the Kremlin a joke that came back to haunt him during the campaign.) So by that logic, the ad was just reminding people of an issue that had already been raised. I don’t really buy that interpretation, but the Johnson campaign would no doubt have argued that they were just raising something that was already in the air.

  2. The unpublished Loewen research you mentioned in your column sounds interesting, but I’m just wondering if there is anything in there about how effective negative advertising is at making a greater number of people dislike a candidate or a party. If the negative ads only mobilize those who already strong partisans (and are probably already quite likely to vote), the positive effects on democracy (increasing the likelihood of participation) might be pretty small.

  3. Andrew, what is in the water over there? Christ, talk about journalistic Stockholm syndrome!

    With respect, I know more about why I named my company something than you do, don’t you think?

    And, with feeling, take a Valium. “His usual game of scattergun accusations and truth-bending”? I happen to disagree with you, and that’s how you respond? Grow up.

    Anyway. I am grateful for one thing. If this note actually gets posted, it’ll be the first thing I’ve written at Maclean’s that wasn’t vetoed by the “free speechy” Messrs. Whyte or Steyn!

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