The dirty little secret behind attack ads

The Liberal ads are an appeal to the reptile part of our brains, the ‘fight or flight’ part, where panic, rage and fear reside

The dirty little secret behind attack ads

Even the words are creepy. “Cover-up. A description far more familiar to other countries. Until now.” But as we all know, it’s the sounds and imagery that make an attack ad. “When questions arose [ominous, metallic hum; barbed wire graphic] about what he and his government knew about torture in Afghanistan [clanging noise; more barbed wire], Stephen Harper shut down Parliament. Why doesn’t he want to face Parliament? [Militaristic snare drum; bell tolls.] What does Stephen Harper know that he doesn’t want other Canadians to know?”

I give up. His age? The combination to his gym locker? We’re never told. But we’re plainly invited to assume the worst. All is insinuation, right down to the sneer in the announcer’s voice.

Now, this is hardly the most outstanding example, as these things go. And there is a bedrock of truth to it. Stephen Harper did shut down Parliament. That does raise questions about what he knows, but won’t say, about “torture in Afghanistan.” But that wasn’t enough for the Liberals, who made the ad. It never is.

It was not enough merely to criticize the government for proroguing (“shut down”) Parliament. An appeal had rather to be made to the reptile part of our brains, the “fight or flight” part, where panic, rage, and fear reside. That’s what attack ads aim for: not to stir up debate, but to make debate redundant.

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with politicians criticizing one another—“going negative,” in the vernacular. But it matters how you go about it: whether your aim is to engage the public, or inflame them.

Those in the game offer two standard defences. One, the other guys started it. This is invariably true: whatever sin one party may have committed, it can always find a precedent in its opponents. Which is handy, since it means neither side need justify its actions in its own right, but only by way of the other’s.

And the second? Simple: they work. This is presented, not as an amusing irony, a comment on man’s fallen nature, but as a justification. Oh, they work, you say? Well, in that case I withdraw my objections.

So often has this been repeated that it has become accepted wisdom. Say what you will about attack ads, journalists will observe, but they work. Really? Then why do they have to keep making new ones? Elections generally have losers as well as winners. Somebody’s ads must not be working.

In fact, most of them don’t. Political parties come up with dozens of ads in the course of a campaign. Some work. Most fail. You just try something, and see.

This is the dirty little secret of the trade, forgotten in all the breathless coverage of the “rainmakers” and their strategies for “moving the numbers.” There’s a saying in Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Meaning nobody knows what makes a hit picture. You just try something, and see.

What no one seems to want to consider is this: maybe people in politics don’t know anything, either. Maybe they keep churning out the same stale ads, with the same hackneyed scripts—“Stephen Harper. What’s his real agenda?”—not because they work, but because they can’t think of anything else.

Is it possible that an entire profession could get it wrong? Happens all the time. One of the “revelations” to come out of the financial crisis is how many people on Wall Street were operating on autopilot. They made their millions doing the same thing, in the same way, until they discovered that what they were doing was crazy. The same is true of doctors: studies show incidence patterns for many procedures, such as C-sections, bear no relationship to therapeutic value or need. It’s all just habit, custom and fad.

In the world outside politics, people understand the value of reputation. To be persuasive to others, it helps to have a reputation as a trustworthy, sensible person. Reputation is accumulated by repeated exposures through time. So we are obliged to be conscious of how our actions, advantageous as they may seem at any given moment, will be received later.

Political people, by contrast, appear to operate in a permanent year zero, without past or future. It is as if they never expect to run into the voters again. Attack ads and other sorts of bad behaviour, in consequence, are treated as if they were all upside. If they work, great. If they don’t, hey, no cost.

But in fact, there is a cost, even if they do “work”: a cost in reputation. Having attacked the Conservatives so many times before in such overheated terms, the Liberals find the public are disinclined to believe them, now that there is something of a real wolf to report.

Nor is the cost limited to one party or the other. The whole profession is degraded, to the point that people tune out of politics altogether. The comparison has been made before: if the airlines ran attack ads savaging each other’s safety records, nobody would fly on any of them.

But now let’s take a contrary example. One of the really great things newspapers and magazines do, for all our many, many faults, is to publish letters to the editor. Often these are extremely critical: a daily or weekly recounting of all the things we got wrong. Yet the effect, far from harming our credibility, is to enhance it.

Suppose Air Canada ran ads that said: here’s how many of our planes were late yesterday. And here’s what we’re doing to improve on that performance. Would that hurt their credibility, or help it? And if political parties did the same?

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.