Attack ads don’t work, except when they do

The Obama campaign seemed to have no regrets

As Paul notes, a new poll has found that 70% of respondents believe the attack ads launched by the Conservatives against Justin Trudeau are unfair. Maybe that means something. Maybe a few years from now we’ll be citing this survey with irony.

Three years ago, Nanos found that attack ads launched against Michael Ignatieff had left 65% of respondents with a more negative view of Stephen Harper. Angus Reid and Ipsos Reid also found negative impacts on the Prime Minister. Two years later, Mr. Harper had a majority mandate and Mr. Ignatieff’s political career was over.

In reviewing the latest science on campaign advertising last year, Sadie Dingfelder suggested the fears about a backlash against attack ads (at least in the United States) were dissipating, but NPR found that the evidence of effectiveness was mixed. That said, attack ads have at least one public proponent: the senior strategist for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

David Axelrod, Obama’s ­senior strategist, felt he had been given a gift. For months, he had worried that the Romney campaign would find a way to present its candidate in a compelling fashion. But as far as Axelrod could tell, the Romney campaign had no such strategy. “I questioned why they didn’t spend more time and ­energy early defining Romney in a fuller way so people could identify with him,” Axelrod said in a postelection interview. “One of my conclusions is so much of his life was kind of walled off from use. His faith is important to him, but they didn’t want to talk about that. His business was important, but they didn’t want to talk about that much. His governorship was important to him, but his signature achievement [health care] was unhelpful to them in the Republican primary. My feeling is you have to build a candidacy on the foundation of biography. That is what authenticates your message. I was always waiting for that happen.”

Axelrod jumped at the opening. In a major gamble, the Obama campaign moved $65 million in advertising money that had been budgeted for September and October into June, enabling the president to unleash a series of attacks that would define Romney at a time when the Republican would have little money to respond. From Axelrod’s viewpoint, the timing was perfect. Romney had been weakened by assaults from fellow GOP candidates during the primaries. Romney alienated many Hispanics by suggesting that illegal immigrant families should “self-deport,” and he said he had been a “severely conservative” governor, hurting his strategy to move to the middle for the general election.

Mr. Trudeau has stated a general aversion to negativity—which is perhaps a principled position, but also surely at least something of a political calculation—but it will be interesting to see what that means in practice. Will his adverts avoid all criticism of the government side? Will they include criticism, but also happy thoughts and smiley images?

A few years ago, in the midst of an earlier round of attack ads, I compiled some of the scathing reviews those ads received and was (perhaps rightly) mocked for doing so. The general discussion around attack ads risks becoming like the general discussion around civility, in which we all rend our garments over some vague idea—undefinable at best, simplistic at worst—that things should be somehow better. I tend to agree that our politics should not be soul-crushingly awful to watch and participate in. I suppose the most virulent demagoguery should be discouraged and we should hope to never get to a point at which outright lies are accepted as acceptable. But past that, it is all in the eye of the beholder. One man’s destructive attack ad is another’s necessary critique.

If I was making the rules, there would be only two restrictions on attack ads. No disintegrating children. And no home invasions.




Browse

Attack ads don’t work, except when they do

  1. “Mr. Trudeau has stated a general aversion to negativity”

    I’m a conservative. I find it objectionable that the government is running $25 billion deficits and believe it is Trudeau’s job and duty to criticize this deficit.

    A criticism, by definition, is negative.

    The above was a simple example showing the folly of Trudeau’s aversion, but what is even more objectionable is that this clown didn’t just drink the Harper Hater kool-aid, he chugged an entire keg. He trashes Harper and Conservatives non-stop, and the only difference between that an an attack ad is that Liberals are too broke to afford putting Justin’s shrieking, hysterical hatred of Harper into ad form.

    Additionally, when you have shameless Liberal hacks like Wherry defending you all day every day and doing your dirty work, it’s a bit redundant for Justin to bother going negative – his press fanboys do it gratis. Negativity laundering, you could call it.

    Conservatives don’t release attack ads until they are focus group tested successfully – pundits “evaluate” these ads after the horse left the barn. Even the infamous Chretien face ad tested well before release and even led to a spike in support for Campbell until the Media Party decided on behalf of Canadians that it was inappropriate.

    • “He trashes Harper and Conservatives non-stop, and the only difference between that an an attack ad is that Liberals are too broke to afford putting Justin’s shrieking, hysterical hatred of Harper into ad form.”

      Whereas the Conservatives have loads of money to spend putting Harper’s well-documented hatred of the Liberal party into ad form.

    • The LPC just pulled in in excess of $400,000 off of those “professionally” focus grouped ads. If they’re still broke[they aren't] they soon wont be at this rate.
      And anyone who still thinks it was smart[ leave alone ethical] to run ads mocking Chretien’s facial paralysis is chugging some koolaid of their own.

      • That $400,000 won’t go far if they’re paying Junior his $20,000/speech fee while he’s campaigning around the country.

        • Remember whose ad it is, and ask yourself if it’s a good idea to be making ads that make the LPC better off?

          • I will say with confidence that this fundraising “bump” will disappear in short order.

            And we also don’t know how much the CPC raised from the campaign. If they took in $600,000 then it’s still a net-win. It’s also a bit disingenuous to suggest that every dime of that $400,000 was in response to the attack ad. But maybe it was, maybe Liberals will only donate to combat attack ads and don’t care about financially supporting the party otherwise. History would indicate that’s the case, at least.

          • Why don’t we know what the CPC raised?

            Disingenuous nothing. The LPC claims that was almost double the take or any previous email blast they’ve put out over a similar period of time. Not only that but i think they helped raise something like ten grand[?] for the lung foundation…thanks Rick.I hope some of that came out your pocket.

            As far as i know the regular donations to the party have much improved.

          • We don’t know what the CPC raised because they don’t feel the need to go around celebrating a massive victory any time somebody donates. The fact that the LPC does, says more about them than anybody else.

            “The LPC claims”…. ya, I’ve heard enough on that front. These are the same people who were claiming to have 300,000+ voters for their leadership “contest”, only to have to admit later that it was in fact half of that. The same people who told us the Liberal leadership wouldn’t be a coronation but a debate of “ideas”. Until their chosen leader indicated he wasn’t quite ready for a debate of ideas. The same people who did a massive fundraiser to defend Bob Rae from attack ads, only to take the money and do nothing to defend Rae.

            I’ll start believing LPC HQ when they give me a reason to.

          • This is why its no fun debating you – you’re too idle or partisan to bother to even come armed with the correct facts. You don’t have to leave macleans to get them…but i forgot, Wherry’s a liberal shill[or is it NDP now?]

            The figure was around 290,000 “potential” voters [ supporters and members]
            Only a third or so registered to vote. Which while disappointing isn’t uncommon around convention time.[not all the ndp members showed up for their vote either]
            No one hid that. It was there in plain sight on the liberal blog. You just couldn’t be arsed to go check it.And when AWs did, you simply ignored it.
            As for broken promises…who doesn’t?

            You’re a bore Omen[ or whoever you are] not because i don’t like your politics, but simply because like all uber partisans you don’t check your facts,or don’t care to anyway.

          • I think you get my point. They weren’t running around telling everybody in the media that they had “290,000 potential voters, but don’t go reporting that number because it’s likely to go down”. They were throwing out the largest possible number, hoping that the media would report that number and not dig any further. And they ended up looking like fools for it.

            But ya, I guess I was out by 10,000 non-existent voters. My bad.

          • What point? That they should have known in advance how many supporters or even members would register to vote? That’s not entirely logical, is it. [ clearly they weren't non existent voters - cept in your mind]
            Sure they put out the biggest number – it is politics not cricket.

            This concern coming from someone who supports a party with very few ethical boundaries that i can discern is touching.

      • I hate to say it but remember that all those donors only paid a portion of those donations. They WILL get tax rebates for those donations. For some reason people are always reminding us that the Conservative party’s donors aren’t really paying for their donations and yet when the Liberal party pulls in the donations from the public, no one seems outraged about the tax rebates to their donors.

        • I’ve been complaining since the year dot about this. At least since the time it was being argued by Coyne here that removing the per vote sub was a good idea. I’d like it back. With a commitment to end or greatly reduce TCs for wealthier donors.
          As for selective outrage – i posted my views right after the party raised that money. AND i did not send a donation myself. Although in that case it was because i thought they should use the money and respond. But partially because i don’t like the TC. It only encourages mindless donating.
          See, liberals are as capable of having principles as the next person.

    • and you were almost sane for about two sentences, there…

  2. JT is his own walking, talking, dancing attack ad. I doubt if he needs any definition a la Axelrod.[ take that Wells]
    He certainly isn’t “walled in.” The public know who he is[ as opposed to what he stands for. That needs work] So, i don’t think Romney’s case applies. Same for Harper; people have an idea who he is by now. So, i’d expect the coming liberal ads to be upbeat, compare and contrast..curly locks against helmet head.[ little too negative??]

    Boy those NDP/union ads are scummy and pure propaganda – talk about backfire! Is it too soon after Jack’s passing to note smilin’ Jack wasn’t above getting down in the gutter with the worst of them, when he wanted to? And dismissing this notion of the NDP being the only one out there with clean hands and hearts.

    • Good idea re: Trudeau. May the next election be the “hair style” election! lol

      • Actually, i don’t think you’d really like that.

  3. I don’t think anyone will tell a pollster they like attack ads, think they are fair, and are greatly influenced by them.

    • Bingo. You’re so right. No one wants to think or admit that they’re influenced by them, so in a sense, those are stupid questions for pollsters to even ask. There are so many things like that, where polling responses are incredibly skewed towards (a) what the respondent thinks the person asking the question wants to hear, and/or (b) the respondent’s idealized, sanitized version of him/herself (e.g., “I’m such a nice, enlightened person that I’d never be swayed by one of those cheesy attack ads”).
      I

      • And a Bingo on your Bingo.

  4. Maybe I’m the only one, but I don’t classify fact-based attack ads in the same bin as fact-devoid attack ads (i.e. ads based on lies, impressions, or innuendo). Ads that point to opponent’s policies and state “Policy X is a bad idea because of outcome Y” are completely different animals than Rovian-style attack ads that purposely make up a lie and hope the public will think of it as the truth (even weeks or months after the lie has been debunked). Arguably, the Rovian style is more effective than an ad that is purely critical of another party’s position, in that it serves to reinforce existing biases in it’s audience. Which is a shame, because Rovian-style attack ads are the work of amoral monsters, no matter what party produces them.

  5. The PSAC “home invasion” ad was factually inaccurate: GHG emissions dropped 6% 2005-2010 and Harper doubled Environment Canada spending in his first two years in office. Repeat: Harper has massively increased Environment Canada spending, not cut it, as PSAC falsely claims. Harper’s environment record, particularly on GHG emissions, is outstanding, far better than his Liberal predecessors.

    PSAC doesn’t give a fig about the environment; they care about pigging out at the public sector trough, that’s why they want Harper gone.

    There are 193 countries in the world. Do you really suppose that negative ads are unique to the United States and not done in the other 192 countries? “US-style” – right, only to a sitcom-addicted “progressive”.

    • of all those countries, which one stopped monitoring greenhouses gases in it’s airspace in the last few years.

      (Hint – it was Canada).

      • Damn it you didn’t have to make it so easy…i knew that.

  6. Attack ads work in that they frame debate – Cons want Canadians discussing whether Trudeau is a doofus for next couple of years. People think other people are crazy, majority of Canadians will think any one person is dumb and not fit to lead. There is no point in Libs doing attack ads because Harper is already defined in people’s minds and Libs would be wasting $$$.

    • Plus it’s hard to imagine how any attack ad could say anything worse than what gets said about Harper & Co ad nauseam on a continuous basis by the ususal suspects (e.g., Suzuki and the enviros, self-appointed lefty-liberal activists and activitst groups of various stripes, anyone affiliated with or who supports the NDP, Liberals, Greens, BQ). News flash: if you’ve spent the last 6 years calling the guy an Evil Nazi Dictator who’s Destroying Canada as We Know It, it’s kind of difficult to “top” that via an attack ad. “Wow. Harper’s evil? I’ve never ever heard THAT before . . .”

      • Interesting point, have not thought of it that way. Left wing types are harridans, that’s for sure.

  7. If I was making the rules, there would be only two restrictions on attack ads. No disintegrating children. And no home invasions.

    A good start. Could we also add pointing the muzzle of a handgun into the camera and firing to the banned list?

    The PSAC ad is particularly egregious, not so much for its content (which is bad enough considering the civil service is supposed to be non-partisan), but because its members cannot opt out of the union dues that pay for it, at least until the Conservatives man up and pass some Right To Work legislation. At least Conservatives disaffected with the CPC’s advertising can stop donating or tear up their memberships. A PSAC person has to quit his/her job to opt out of supporting this kind of message.

    • Exactly.

    • ” A PSAC person has to quit his/her job to opt out of supporting this kind of message.”

      Is that all? I’d have to give up my job, home and country to opt out of supporting this government.

Sign in to comment.