Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Because It Works: The morning after the nastiest election campaign in living memory (something that could be said after almost every election in recent memory), The Wall Street Journal op-ed page includes a piece by former Boston Globe columnist John Ellis bemoaning the negative tone of recent political advertising and making a “business case” for greater civility.

His basic point is that most smart marketers don’t spend billions of dollars attacking each other. “Imagine, if you will, what your taste for Miller beer would be if Anheuser-Busch spent half of its annual advertising budget describing all of the various Miller brands in the most unsavory terms. Or, what your taste for a Budweiser would be if the lads at Miller unleashed a $500 million negative ad campaign against ‘the King of Beers.’ Imagine both at the same time and you get some idea of what domestic politics is like for most Americans.”

Leaving aside the fact that Miller and Bud do, in fact, take pot shots at each other all the time (a campaign featuring football referees comes to mind), Ellis—now a partner in a venture capital firm—misses the big difference between politics and marketing, which is that politics is pretty much a zero-sum game.

“One would think that the major parties would grasp the concept that they are destroying the very profession they purport to love, and act accordingly,” says Ellis. In all likelihood, they grasp that fact, but the incentives to carry on as they do are simply too powerful.

The bottom line is that negative advertising works. There’s good reason to believe that the race-baiting ad run by the Republican National Committee against black Democrat Harold Ford in Tennessee swung the momentum back in his opponent’s favor.

In marketing, a rising tide can lift all boats. Convince people that a category is worthwhile, and all the products in that category can increase sales and profits. But in politics, if one “brand” is going to win, the other has to “lose” and the sad reality is that messages of fear and hate are easier to communicate and ultimately more effective in motivating people than positive messages.