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Negative Advertising Fails

That's what research and British Columbia's experience shows.

By Bill Tieleman 9 Apr 2013 |

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at or visit his blog.

"The research clearly shows that negative ads are not more persuasive than positive ads." -- Bill Benoit, Ohio University communication studies professor

New Democrat leader Adrian Dix is taking the biggest political risk of his life -- and his party will win or lose this election because of it.

No, it's not by promising well in advance that an NDP government would increase the corporate tax rates or put a minimum tax on banks and financial institutions nor is it an ill-advised policy in the party's forthcoming platform.

Dix rolled the dice a year ago when he publicly pledged the NDP will not run negative or personal attack ads, period.

The NDP has not and will not respond in kind to the vicious $1 million assault on Dix's own character launched by Concerned Citizens for BC, a BC Liberal-linked group led by Jim Shepard, an ex-Christy Clark advisor and former corporate CEO.

But is Dix being risky or is it really Clark's team taking dangerous chances by gambling everything on the success of negative advertising?

After all, the NDP is 20 points ahead of the BC Liberals and Dix's approval rating is miles ahead of Clark's, according to the last Angus Reid poll.

The focus on negative ads may be because while political operatives strongly believe negative advertising works, those who actually empirically study advertising for a living say the research tells a different story.

Confused consultants

"Everyone remembers the races where a negative attack or series of attacks appears to have been decisive. That's the kind of knowledge candidates and consultants have -- it's anecdotal evidence. The scholarly evidence doesn't back them up," says Stephen Craig, professor of political science at the University of Florida.

"Here's the deal -- why are there so many negative ads? Because candidates and consultants believe they work," Craig says.

"If you've got a powerful negative message that resonates with voters, then yeah, it's going to work. But if it's about something voters don't care about, if it's a message that's poorly presented, then they're not going to be moved by it."

"Can it work? Yes. Does it work? Sometimes," Craig sums up.

Another expert who has done the research says policy trumps so-called "character" issues time after time.

"It would seem that the candidate who talks more about policy may be more likely to win," says Bill Benoit, an Ohio University communication studies professor who studies negative political advertising.

"We found public opinion data from 1980 through 2000 where they asked voters what's the most important determinant of your vote for president and more people said policy or issues than character or image."

"So in fact, the candidates who talk more about policy are more likely to win than if you stress character," Benoit concludes.

Familiar weapon, new era

I know firsthand that negative advertising can work very well -- because I was Premier Glen Clark's communications director when our NDP campaign used it against then-opposition leader Gordon Campbell in 1996. And my colleague then was Clark's chief of staff, Adrian Dix.

The NDP launched a pre-emptive negative TV advertising strike against Campbell that started before Clark was even chosen leader in Feb. 1996.

Those ads, brilliantly created by NOW Communications, featured grainy black and white photos of a scary Campbell with an ominous deep male announcer's voice talking about BC Liberal plans to slash public services, then asking: "Gordon Campbell: Whose side is he on anyway?"

In the election campaign that followed, the NDP slogan was "On Your Side" and it was illustrated by the government freezing tuition fees, BC Ferries' fares, ICBC auto insurance rates and increasing the minimum wage.

All of that was counter posed to Campbell's agenda to cut 15 per cent from the BC budget, sell BC Rail, reduce the number of rural seats in the BC Legislature and generally shake up the province.

The BC Liberals ill-advised slogan -- "The Courage To Change" -- even reinforced the NDP message that bad things would happen if Campbell were elected.

The combination of heavy negative advertising against the BC Liberals – who initially held a 30-point lead -- and positive action by the NDP government combined to give Glen Clark a stunning upset victory.

'We need to bring people back to politics': Dix

Clark won more seats but fewer votes than Campbell's battered crew.

But the approach Dix takes to politics today has evolved since 1996.

"A lot of people think the way to respond to negative ads is to run negative ads ourselves," Dix told the Parksville Qualicum Beach news last May.

"The reason we are not going to do this is very simple. First, 1.7 million people didn't vote in the last provincial election.

"We are not going to bring anybody back to politics by deciding the winner of an election is the person with the best ad agency to run the nastiest negative ads. We need to bring people back to politics and that means offering some hope that change will happen," Dix argued.

And despite being the target of extensive personal attack ads, Dix has not wavered.

For their part, the BC Liberals surprisingly say they aren't going to go negative either.

Mike McDonald, the BC Liberal Party campaign director, claims his team is going to play nice.

"We're not going to run a nasty campaign," he told The Province's Michael Smyth.

"A campaign is where you debate. You talk about your strengths and your opponent's weaknesses. That's what we intend to do and we'll do it in a very fair, honest and factual way," McDonald says.

But even if McDonald is correct, he leaves unsaid the role of CC4BC and possibly other BC Liberal supporters running third party advertising.

Big turn-off

Regardless of that, other academic research should also concern the BC Liberals and their ad buying allies in CC4BC because it shows that increased repetition of negative advertising has the reverse effect on voters -- they are turned right off by it.

A new study out last month showed participants a series of ads, including negative political attack ads.

The study found that "after three exposures, participants had more favorable opinions of the candidate who sponsored the ad. But, after five airings, viewers' opinions became increasingly negative."

Juliana Fernandes, an assistant professor at the University of Miami in Florida who specializes in political communication, conducted the research and cautions that those using negative ads "should use negative ads strategically, not overwhelmingly."

Whoops -- that doesn't seem to have been the CC4BC approach with its carpet-bombing negative ad campaign.

But don't just blame political parties and advocacy groups for going negative – blame the media, says Benoit, who has extensively studied both American and international elections.

"We know that news coverage is always more negative than the candidates and the news coverage does not emphasize policy as much as the candidates do – the news focuses on horserace first and then character," Benoit argues persuasively.

Will Dix's boycott of negative advertising not only help the BC NDP win the election but also change the channel from nasty politics to policy?

If so, Dix will become the second B.C. opposition leader to easily win an election without running a single negative attack ad. Ironically the first was Gordon Campbell in his 2001 landslide victory over the NDP.

Disclosure: Tieleman supported Adrian Dix's NDP leadership bid.  [Tyee]

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