If negative ads work so well in politics, why don't businesses use them more?

What works for polls doesn't for everyone else
August 18, 2014

If a United Airlines plane had to make an emergency landing -- or worse -- because of pilot error or mechanical failure, you would never see it featured in a commercial by American Airlines. If Wendy’s had a food safety problem at one of its restaurants, Burger King probably wouldn’t seize on it as the centerpiece of an ad campaign.

But if a political candidate is considered misleading, dishonest -- or, let’s face it, just plain guilty of taking a stand that’s unpopular with an important segment of the electorate -- you can count on seeing commercials about it. If they don’t come directly from an opponent, they’ll come from an independent group supporting the opponent’s candidacy.

Why is this? If negative ads are so effective in distinguishing between political candidates, why aren’t they all the rage for selling cars? Or home mortgages?

Perhaps consumers take the choice of a president or governor more seriously than purchasing a material good or service. Or are businesses simply more concerned than politicians about the potential withering effect of negative ads on their stock in trade?

There seems to be little doubt that no matter how effective negative ads are in a particular race, they don’t do much to instill confidence in the political process. Back in 1999, a Stanford University study found that “in seeking to depict their clients’ opponents in the most unattractive terms possible, political advertisers typically anger, threaten, and repulse the audience. The overwhelming negativity of political advertising, while intended to weaken public support for the opposition candidate, also rubs off on the message itself.”

Though just how much damage those negative ads are having on the political process is subject to some debate.  A University of Florida studyof students at 13 universities during the 2004 presidential election found that negative ads did not make them more cynical about politics. Researchers suggested, “It could be that young voters have become so accustomed to political advertising that they accept it as a legitimate source of information.”

One reason campaigns freely sling mud at one another is because they can. David Vinjamuri, who teaches branding and social media at New York University, says businesses don’t go at each other’s throats the way Democrats and Republicans do partly because of oversight by independent entities like the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau. Writing in Forbes in 2012, he suggests that the political parties work together to create their own internal enforcement to eliminate distortion and fabrications.

He acknowledges though that such a suggestion is “idealistic and incredibly unlikely.”

Political campaigns also have a much shorter frame of reference than product campaigns. Losing candidates essentially go out of business after an election, a risk that few companies would care to take on a marketing campaign. And, says Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade, a New York-based social media and marketing agency, businesses can grow their brand by extending the market without necessarily taking anything away from the competition.

“Leading brands have nothing to gain by picking on a direct competitor so they are more likely to be trying to grow their category,” Neisser says. “Second-tier brands are the ones that are more likely to consider overtly competitive ads.”

Even then, he says, businesses are reluctant to associate their brand with a negative message. “That’s why a brand like Pepsi will use a tongue-in-cheek approach versus an overtly negative approach when doing competitive ads versus Coke.”

Indeed, when businesses do engage one another in what might otherwise be considered “negative” advertising, it’s gentler than what you’d find in a political campaign.

When a couple of fast-food giants sparred recently over their breakfast menus, it hardly matched the fervor of a negative campaign ad. It didn’t get much tougher than Taco Bell featuring some real-life people named Ronald McDonald praising their breakfast items. Similarly, Microsoft is taking aim at Apple in a series of commercials that compare the Surface Pro 3 to the MacBook in a much more subtle way than you’d find in a political campaign.

Even so, it makes you wonder if the people responsible for selling products and services are more respectful of their industry than politicians are of theirs. Not necessarily, Neisser says. “If product managers thought overtly competitive advertising worked, many more would undoubtedly make this choice.”