When i was in highschool, one of my teachers explained the conventional wisdom of advertising for my impressionable ears. I still remember my surprise, listening to Mr Kearn tell me that Ford or GM or Chrysler would not ever say anything against one another, because at the same time they were selling their brand, they were also selling cars in general.
Mr Kearn said these companies created their ads in search of something called “market share.” GM or Ford seek to enlarge their percentage of the total dollars spent on that product. And by promoting the activity in general, all of the competing companies seek to enlarge the total amount spent on cars (compared to say, cola or Barbie dolls). Everyone making a car ad sells the joys of driving, promoting the big product –cars– while also promoting their own brand as well.
Positive ads have at least two outcomes:
1) first by showing or speaking of an activity, you promote that activity in a non-specific way. If you show cars you’re selling the glamour or the fun of car ownership, the pleasures of driving, and so on.
2) and second, when you name a particular brand or product, you identify some smaller group within the larger class from #1, such as Ford, or Firestone tires.
And so, we come to another phenomenon, namely the negative ad. Yes I was thinking of attack ads, made by one political party, drawing our attention to something the opposition has done, such as a false promise or an embarassing quotation.
Not all negative ads are political attack ads. For example, I call your attention to the long campaign from Mac ridiculing PC. Mac is cool, PC is businesslike, Mac is reliable, PC crashes. And so on. The fascinating thing about this series of ads is how gently they make their attack. Even so, there’s no denying that this is still a species of negative ad.
As Canadians enter another election, I am thinking about the consequences of negative ads. I wish our political ads were as sophisticated as the Mac-PC ads, which seem comparatively victimless, compared to the snarling tone of the usual political attack ad.
By the logic of Mr Kearn’s lesson on the positive ad (where we avoid negative language to avoid words backfiring against the product class), there are also possible unforeseen consequences for negative ads. Or perhaps those consequences are clearly foreseen and even expected by the party planning gurus.
We can picture two different outcomes for the negative ads, just like the positive ads i mentioned above.
The first one is well documented. When one political party says negative things about a particular politician, it encourages people to shun that person and not vote for the person attacked. That’s more or less the part we’re conscious of, when a politician is picked apart and thereby loses his “market share”, or in other words, loses popular support.
The second? i don’t know that it’s properly recognized, but it’s equally important. Just as the positive ad works both in support of a class of product as well as a specific product within that class, so too with the negative ad. In addition to persuading voters not to vote for the targetted politician, there is an additional broader response to the broader product being sold, namely the political system and our elected representatives.
The negative ad encourages a sort of despair, because it proclaims that politicians need to be scrutinized carefully, that they sometimes are untruthful (haha: as if that were news), that politics is not a nice business, that politics is actually a revolting sad affair. One loses enthusiasm, loses faith in the good in people, while sinking into a kind of negative expectation. One becomes cynical, as if they were broken-hearted. Without faith in society & the process, people will not want to vote, and won’t show up. When people become cynical about politicians, they stop caring about the outcome, and surrender their franchise.
So far I have not reached a state of despair. As we enter the Canadian federal election campaign, one of the by-products that some will aim for is a kind of fatigue, to persuade voters not to show up. History shows that low turnouts support the incumbent, whereas high turnout indicates a desire for change. Speaking as a voter who wants a change, i am fearful of the manipulative power of advertising that not only directly addresses the candidates, but may have the power to sap voters’ will to show up, to wear them down, break their hearts, and ultimately persuade them that democracy doesn’t work. I hope that people show up–whoever wins–so that the outcome is a reflection of the will of the people, a passionate choice, not apathy and despair.
At the very least, elections give us wonderful opportunities for comedy (the following makes fun of both Liberals & Conservatives… i apologize to those from the other parties who might feel left out).