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October 25, 2006
The Message Is All That Matters

Bad ads and sleazy politics — it must be election season.

So why are political ads so lousy and so often sleazy?

While political advertising is not altogether different from traditional advertising, it does follow a different set of rules. The focus of political advertising is to quickly convey a message that is easily memorable and digestible. Anyone who has read or seen political ads or listened to pundits knows that political advertisers are the masters of the sound bite.

The domain of the political ad is pure emotional engagement. As a result, a good engaging message is really all you need to fulfill the goal of the ad. Everything else is superfluous. Thus, political ads, whether on TV or radio or in print, tend to be only about a half-step above local cable TV ads or ads in the local paper in terms of production quality, despite having access to far better funding. In the end it’s just not necessary. The message is the important thing, which is why an effective political ad may not even need to mention your candidate to still benefit him — if you have the right message.

Anyone who followed the 2004 presidential race saw firsthand the power of message over substance. John Kerry is an intelligent man; so is Howard Dean. Both had some very important things to say and are both well-spoken men. But I doubt most people will have any recollection of their platforms or anything specific they may have said. However, everyone will remember “flip-flop”, the swift boat veterans, and Howard Dean’s screaming.

Which brings us to the issue of sleaze. Attack ads are used because they work, period. For all the years I worked in political advertising, attack ads were by far our most effective advertising technique.

Attack ads are controversial, juicy, and memorable. In the hands of an expert, they can turn a lackluster candidate into a winner, and a seemingly untouchable candidate into an also-ran.

Political advertisers know that the attention span of their audience is short. They also know that very few people will spend even a tiny bit of time researching any assertions made for accuracy, embellishment, or spin. And, as we have become increasingly aware, once the message is “out there,” it is very hard to change it, despite any follow-up discussion, corrections, or disclaimers that come after the fact.

The other beautiful thing about attack ads is that they have a life beyond the initial piece. Attack ads make the news. They produce reaction, not only from voters, but from the candidates themselves. If your ad is covered by the media, not only is your message now being given a life and audience far greater than it was intended, but the media gives it credibility just by its being there. Candidate reaction also creates more attention. When your opponent reacts to an ad, not only does it keep the ad and the message alive, but it also gives your opponent the opportunity to say or do something potentially damaging by responding to your ad when he is defensive or angry.

Political ads don’t need to be better because they don’t have to be. If done properly, all people will remember is the message, so there is no need to waste time or money on production values or snappy design. Perception is nine-tenths of reality, so whomever controls his own perception and the perception of his opponents wins the race.

Political ads are sleazy because they work. When you have an advertising strategy with such a high success rate, it would be silly to pass on it, because your opponent will not be so gracious. The candidates who “refuse to go negative” usually lose.

None of this, however, speaks to whether or not this practice, while effective, leads to good government, but that is another discussion. Advertisers are paid to make compelling advertising that moves people into action. As long as that is the primary focus of political advertising, that is how it will stay. So the next time you see, hear, or read a political ad that seems low-quality and sleazy, try and see the core message, because that’s all that matters.

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John Sullivan is the author of The Rudicus Report, a blog about politics, culture, and media. He has previously worked as director of worldwide communications for an international education center and as creative director for a renowned political advertising firm. John left the business world to pursue an advanced degree in journalism and communications to better study and write about the media’s influence on society.

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