Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Negative Ads

I’ve long suspected that a significant chunk of the support for things like campaign finance reform derives simply from annoyance with negative political ads. To a certain extent I think this annoyance is overblown. Negative ads tend to be fairly substantive, whereas their “positive” counter-parts are often nearly content-free (“I care about the environment; that’s why I’m standing in front of this river”). But even I have to admit that they can often be grating (whether the proper response is to scrap the First Amendment rather than, say, pressing the mute button, is another issue).

What I find curious, though, is the fact that while negative advertisements play a role in just about every close political campaign, they are almost totally absent from commercial advertising. Occasionally a company will mention a competitor in its ads in a less than favorable way (see here), but even this tends to be rare and relatively mild compared to standard political ads. The grainy black and white ads with the distorted photos and ominous sounding announcers, so common in politics, are just unheard of. What explains the difference? Here are some possibilities:

1. It’s the regulation, stupid: Commercial speech has historically received less protection under the First Amendment than political speech, and regulations on commercial advertising are thus more strict than for political ads. Running a false or misleading commercial ad, for example, is liable to get you fined, or worse. Running a false of misleading political ad (if it’s any good) is liable to get you promoted. It’s a decent theory, but it should be noted that if the regulations governing commercial advertising were applied to political advertising, it’s not clear how many so-called positive ads would pass muster either. Plus, there are plenty of negative ads a company could do that would be entirely truthful, yet devastating. Yet I’m not aware of any major instances of one company “going negative” on one of its competitors the way politicians routinely go negative on their political opponents.

2. The political is the personal: In commercial advertising typically involves products. As a potential customer, we don’t particularly care about the personal lives of CEOs, only whether they products are any good. In the case of politics, by contrast, we typically vote not for policies, but for politicians. Issues of character, judgment, and competence are therefore more salient in the case of politics, and to the extent that negative ads focus on such matters, this could explain the difference. But, of course, not all negative ads revolve around personal issues, and while people generally wouldn’t care about the personal practices of a company’s leadership, they might well care about its environmental or labor practices.

3. Politics is a zero sum game: While both politics and commerce involve competition, the nature of the competition is quite different. In an election, candidates are competing over a fixed resource. There can only be one President, or Governor of a state, or representative of a district, and in a contested any contested race one person is going to get elected and the rest are going to get nothing. In business, by contrast, its possible for many different companies in a given field to be successful, and the connection between a firm’s benefit and its competitors decline is often far from clear. If a negative ad convinces people not to vote for my opponent, I benefit even if they don’t vote for me instead. By contrast, if a person decides to give up soda based on a negative ad about Pepsi, Coke doesn’t benefit and may in fact be harmed.

4. Politics matters more to us: A person who likes Pepsi may think that Coke tastes awful, and visa versa, but he typically doesn’t think that Coke is a force for evil in the world, or that he must drink Coke so that Pepsi can be stopped. De gustibus non est disputandum. Political issues, by contrast, are not simply matters of taste, in part because we all have to live under the rules politicians set up (whereas the fact that most people are seeing the latest summer blockbuster doesn’t mean I can’t go see the new art house flick), and in part because even where an issue does not affect us directly, it is still a matter of right and wrong, instead of liking and not liking.

Any other ideas?


May 16, 2008 - Posted by | Economics, Election, Media

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