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The negative cycle

Posted by ealboim under Media Commentary, Political Strategy

Elly Alboim

The Conservatives’ attack ads have unleashed a torrent of comment that splits along a traditional divide – those who find negative advertising morally repellent (particularly in the current economic context) and those who report on it dispassionately as a political tactic.

The latter group, almost exclusively journalists and political strategists, generally says that while negative ads are offensive to most, they “work” because they tend to move opinion among target audiences. That is indisputably correct in certain circumstances and at certain times. And because they work, it is hard to imagine political strategists foregoing their use.

The journalists reporting on the ads usually award a measure of grudging respect to the tactical nerve implied in the ruthless deployment of a controversial weapon that might “backfire.” Depending on whether your metaphor of choice is anthropology or sports, these journalists believe they are simply reporting the “news” as they document behavior (or games) as they unfold in the real world (or arena.) And when they are critical (usually columnists), it is usually based on strategic or tactical considerations (like the substance or positioning employed) — not on any higher values basis.

And as Chris Waddell points out below, the journalists republish and rebroadcast the ads thus extending their ”reach” and providing free additional Gross Ratings Points (GRPs) to the political party that produced the ads. GRPs are the way advertisers determine the size of their “buy” and evaluate the likely reach (potential audience size) for their ads.

The ritual dance is so well understood that political parties now hold “news conferences” to “unveil” their ads in the full expectation that this will earn them no-cost national replay on news programs with large audiences. On occasion the “ads” never even reach beyond a posting on a website. This process tolerates absurdities (as happened in this case) like PMO personnel declaring that they were on leave of absence for the day and could only be quoted as Conservative Party officials. Staggeringly, media agreed to the terms and proceeded to allow staffers to “release” anonymously publicly available advertising.

It is an obvious proposition, but worth restating, that the journalistic decision to treat negative advertising as newsworthy normalized behavior (or a normal part of the game) is the other half of an endless symbiotic cycle launched by political strategists and rewarded by media coverage.

There isn’t much research available to help us understand just what impact all this has on the way people view politics and political journalism. But we can probably guess. It is not without reason, as has been remarked on before, that very few advertisers anywhere choose to savage competitors in this way. They fear the damage it might cause to the very product line itself.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communications and a principal in the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, specializing in strategic communications and public opinion.