Home > Cialdini - Weapons of Influence, Social Psychology > My Opponent is Hitler – Why Negative Ads Work

My Opponent is Hitler – Why Negative Ads Work

Negative Ads in Election Campaigns“I am a Christian war hero charity donor who will create jobs, lower taxes, increase Medicare and make the sun shine every day. My opponent dresses in women’s clothes to perform Satan-worshiping ceremonies, when he’s not luring small children into his unmarked van.”

Please take a look at these two example TV spots from candidates running against each other fr the vacant U.S. Senate seat in Illinois:

Here is the first, from the Kirk campaign against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias:

Now here’s the “Alexi for Illinois” ad about Republican Mark Kirk

Crazy from Negative AdsAs negative ads go, these are two of the less colorful of the 2010 midterm election cycle. No one is portrayed as a demonic sheep, for example. I see these ads multiple times a day, particularly on Sunday mornings when the talk shows are on.

I’m sure that like me, they both make you roll your eyes. One candidate is a military intelligence veteran who’s here to save us from a mobbed-up failed banker, and the other is a family business owner and staple of the community who is here to save us from a corporate elitist who takes away money from laid-off workers, and eats his young.

We know that both are obviously disingenuous. And they paint a picture of two candidates who are basically equal in everything but voting record: equal in cynicism, equal in lack of class, equal in hackery, equal in personal agenda, etc.

Yet, these ads work. They work even though we think they don’t. They work even though we believe ourselves better people than those who would be affected by such obvious hyperbole. They just work. They’ve always worked.

Here’s why negative advertising works, even though we believe ourselves to be unaffected by such classless tactics.








The "Third Party Effect"

The “Third Party Effect” explains how you are influenced by ads that you think aren’t getting to you…

In a previous post, I wrote about a fascinating phenomenon called “The Third Person Effect.” This comes from a study published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, and brought to my attention by the incredible Psyblog.

The “effect” hypothesizes that people will assume they are less susceptible to messaging than most people. People will see an ad, and commonly state that while “most people” might be affected by that ad, they themselves would not be. The study goes on to prove that this is a delusion, and that the commenting person is actually just as likely to be influenced by the message as anyone else.

A corollary to the Third Party Effect is that people are – believe it or not – more susceptible to messaging when they don’t agree with the message or judge its source to be negative. This is because we tend to overestimate our own free will and resistance to influence, and let down our defenses as a result.

Now, let’s see how many of Robert Cialdini‘s Weapons of Influence have been packed into this style of ad:

1) Reciprocity – The candidate has done something for you, to make you seem like voting for him is the right thing to do in return. Additionally, the candidate has made it seem as though his opponent’s “services” have concealed a hidden agenda, negating any urges to reciprocate to him.

2) Commitment and Consistency – In this case, the object is not to make the listener commit to something small in order to encourage further commitment later. It is instead to appeal to the listener’s sense of consistency by claiming that a candidate “has always been” and “will always be” a proponent of certain things and an opponent of other things. The converse is labeling one’s opponent as a “waffler” or “flip-flopper.”

3) Social Proof – The candidate has people who love him and support him. For example, these ads are both voiced in the third person, and we assume that the voice we hear is that of a concerned citizen – just like you or me – who believes in this man, or was a victim who was hurt by the other man. It also doesn’t hurt to show photos of the candidate surrounded by the grateful recipients of his aid.

4) Liking – This “weapon” is most important in political strategy. Cialdini lists several factors that influence whether someone “likes” you, me, or a candidate. Are they portrayed as physically attractive? Do they demonstrate a similarity with the audience, or a way the audience can relate to them? Do they pay the listener a compliment, like saying, “My opponent thinks you won’t see through this, but I know you will.” Do they ask you to “pull together” with him for the greater benefit? And do they surround themselves with likable things (e.g. baseball, mom and apple pie)?

5) Authority – Does the candidate invoke or quote authoritative sources like newspapers? Do they speak in a certain language to make their voice sound credible? Is the candidate shown in front of people, with all eyes on him? Is he shown in uniform? Is he shown “handling” something.

6) Scarcity – Does that candidate insist that something will be taken away from you if his opponent is elected, like freedom of choice, tax money, or entitlements? Does that candidate suggest that he will help you, the constituent, get “your fair share” of the resources everyone else is hoarding?

Everyone loves Christine O'Donnell

Everyone loves Christine O’Donnell

Aaaaaaall this is going on in a one-minute TV spot, and because we believe that spot won’t effect us like it effects “the other people,” we let our guards down and is does effect us! There has never been a product of influence this refined since the invention of Crack.

Now add to that the fact that, not only are we exposed to an ad when it runs, but according to articles like this one from the Christian Science Monitor, the most outrageous and hyperbolic ads get people talking about the ads themselves. Either they go viral, or get picked up by news outlets for political process stories, or both. This is the political jackpot; it gets your highly refined product into the bloodstreams of millions more recipients.

When we come into contact with these negatives ads, it’s important that we don’t simply disregard them and think that they will have no effect on us. The act of disregarding them gives them the most influence over us, whether we know it or not. It is better to look carefully at these kinds of ads, respect all the influence triggers they’re hitting at once, and deal with them consciously and deliberately.

  1. October 25, 2010 at 2:28 PM

    OK, I admit it, negative ads get to me. If I dislike a candidate, the ads can make me dislike the candidate even more. Even if I like a candidate, I still may pause and think when the negative ad from the opposing camp comes on.

    But what is the result when all the ads are negative? When we are bombarded with political ads, and every single one of them reads like a Sun-Times headline, what happens to the voter? It seems to me that this must leave many people so disgusted that they don’t vote at all.

  2. Debbie R
    October 27, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    I think that all of the above fight with the econ law of diminishing marginal utility. A little negativity can go a long way, but too much, and all candidates will find more voters (like me)switching away immediately from anything that even starts to look like a campaign ad. All flyers go immediately go into recycling. Millions are wasted, because few people will put up with it. So then they have to put out more–and like Meta Brown says, more voters get disgusted and don’t vote at all–which may be the real point of the whole onslaught. Disengage all but the most diehard and avid voters. Whoever disengages the most voters on the other side, wins.

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