The More You Hate Negative Campaign Ads, The More They Work

U.S. politics has never been kind and genteel. Anyone who believes otherwise is wrong. It's always been a game ruled by its dirtiest players.

Roger Stone: Politics in this country is not beanbag. It has always been rough and tumble. It’s always been a contact sport — when Abraham Lincoln was running, his opponents had handbills saying that he was a half-breed; he was a mixed race, for example. So all that’s really changed is the technology. Now we use the Internet. We use television. We use cable. In those days, we used newspapers, we used handbills. When William McKinley ran for president, his campaign manager, Mark Hannah, was the first guy to realize that he could print hundreds of thousands. if not millions of flyers and distribute them to the 50 states. Since people didn’t have reading material and the newspapers were generally passed from person to person and they moved across the country. You’d finish reading a newspaper; you wouldn’t throw it out. You’d give it to somebody else. They would read it; they would pass it to somebody else. Newspaper printed in New York would find their way all the way to California because newspapers were rare and people wanted to read them. And all the newspapers were partisan. You were either hardcore Democrat or hardcore Republican.

And if you were in either party you would print the most scurrilous, negative, vicious attacks on the other party. So it’s always been a part of our society. Now the very same voters who tell pollsters I hate negative ads; I hate the negative tone — those are the same voters who could tell you exactly what was in those ads because they’ve absorbed them. They particularly absorbed them on the basis of the high level of repetition that most professional political consultants now realize is necessary. Think of it this way. When I was growing up, there were three television networks. I grew up here in the New York area so we had ABC, NBC, and CBS. And then we had two independents — WPIX and WNEW. That was it. All the other channels on the dial were snow; they were nothing. Meaning that if it didn’t happen on one of those five channels, it didn’t happen at all. So if they declined to cover any news event, it’s as if the news event never really happened. Contrast that with today. A hundred choices on cable, dozens of — the three major networks continue. Therefore, a viewer literally has hundreds of choices when he or she sits down in front of their television set or their computer. Therefore, it takes any one political message a greater number of repetitions before people get it. The general consensus in my old business, because I worked as a political strategist and consultant for many years, is that a voter needed to see an ad 10 times before it permeated their consciousness, before they started to retain the facts. The sad truth is negative advertising — which I prefer to call comparative advertising — it works. That’s why politicians use it. And voters who tell you they’re not interested still retain the facts.

U.S. politics has never been kind and genteel. Anyone who believes otherwise is wrong. It's always been a game ruled by its most aggressive players. Roger Stone would know; he'd be the first to admit he's one of them.

The reason why this current political climate feels more brutal than ever is because political rhetoric has effectively harnessed the Internet. From newspapers to television to Twitter, politicians and their operatives are masters at innovating new ways to attack their opponents via new media. Even though most people like to look down upon negative attack ads, research suggests they work. The voters aren't interested in facts — they're interested in emotion. Campaign negativity satiates that thirst. It's what the people want.


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