Attack Of The Drones

Who likes political ads? I’d bet not even Bush and Kerry like their own commercials.

So, it’s not surprising that a recent article in The New York Times reported that people in focus groups consistently said they hated negative ads and preferred positive ones. Yet when asked to recall the ads four days later, they overwhelmingly remembered the negative ones.

Maybe this news isn’t “Dewey Beats Truman.” But as annoying as political ads are, there are things we can learn from them.

First—and we can get this one out of the way in a hurry—never believe anything you hear in a focus group. While everyone I know would say they agree that focus groups aren’t helpful, they don’t always act accordingly.

Focus groups tend to validate what we already know—that people like advertising that isn’t challenging, and they have issues with the ads that make them uncomfortable. But even though we know that’s not how they’re likely to react at home, we go along with their comfort zone.

The people who run political campaigns have figured out not to listen to the very constituents they’re counting on to elect their candidates. They know that what people say and how they vote aren’t always the same. Remember that the next time a housewife from New Jersey gives her opinion.

Second, does that mean that only negative ads work? No. What it means is that ads that differentiate one product from another work. When we give consumers a reason to choose our brand (or candidate) over another, they not only remember the ad, they are more likely to act on it.

“1984” warned us about the evils of Big Blue. Avis said they tried harder than number one. Even “Got milk?” made us remember that, when you need a glass, nothing else will do.

When we forget that product news, information and a reason to believe are big motivators, we tend to fail. And even when we do remember, too often we’re guilty of the politicians’ sins. We’re boring. The average (negative) commercial for a candidate is as forgettable as the average (competitive) one for a deodorant.

Except for the rare ones that aren’t. Remember LBJ’s “Daisy” commercial? It asked us to choose between a candidate who could keep our world safe and one who would blow it up. It ran only once, yet it was never forgotten. Or the first Bush’s Willie Horton commercial. Bush wanted criminals in jail. Dukakis let them out on weekends so they could commit more crimes. Dukakis never recovered.

Negative and competitive ads work, as long as they’re not dull. Which gets me to the third point: Are commercials with a positive message, ones that are all about what we’ve got to sell, doomed to fail? Just like the other kind, the answer is yes, and no.

The problem with most positive commercials—for banks, airlines, political candidates—is that they have no context, so they have little meaning. An insurance company that promises peace of mind is no more compelling than a candidate who pledges prosperity. Both are generic claims without any frame of reference.

So, while they leave us feeling good, positive commercials tend to go in one ear and out the other. (It’s what the focus groups did, not what they said.) Positive ads are hard to do, but when they’re great (Nike and MasterCard come to mind), they create lasting value and can define a brand for all time.

Even at his death, Ronald Reagan was defined by “Morning in America,” because, 20 years earlier, it was created against the backdrop of the Democrats’ night. And at the time, it was precisely the right message for his brand of personality and politics.

(By the way, John Kerry had his morning in “Let America be America again,” a line from a Langston Hughes poem he used occasionally but abandoned. It beautifully captures the decline in our reputation abroad and quality of life at home, it reclaims America for the Democrats, and it de-positions Bush as anti-American. Oh, well.)

So, as we endure the last couple of months of political ads, let’s hope that one of these guys comes up with a negative ad worth remembering. And let’s pray someone creates a positive brand image powerful enough to make us forget the negative ones.

The one who does will win. As long as you don’t forget to vote.