The Consumer Republic: Think Negative

A company with a large share in a shrinking category is in trouble. A politician with those same stats is a winner.
Why are office-seeking politicians the last to get hip to the cult of branding? At a time when every entity–from the junior executive on the make to entire cities–aspires to a brand identity suitable for licensing as a fragrance, politicians are still stuck in the tit-for-tat rhetoric of Tylenol vs. aspirin–except that political ads are nastier, less truthful and have much lower production values.
If you’re looking for proof of brand power in politics, consider ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura, a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate. To the horror of erstwhile front-runner Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III, the Reform Party candidate captured 21 percent of voters polled in mid-October. Now here’s a guy with brand personality. He has a distinctive look (shaved head) and a memorable nickname (“The Body”). Equal parts he-man and self-parody, he’s got the serio-ironic style of wrestling’s ringside that resonates so deeply in the cynicism-driven heart of the postmodern voter.
Ventura claims that in his successful bid for mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., he raised voter turnout in the community of 56,000 from 2,500 to 20,000. Maybe it’s because he talks to the people in a language they can understand. Says one Ventura radio ad (he can’t afford TV): “I believe Minnesota should return the entire $4 billion tax surplus to the hardworking people who paid it. I believe Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are two of the greatest rock bands ever.” Finally, an issue the voters can feel passionate about.
Unfortunately, few races are blessed with a former pro wrestler. Elsewhere, political campaigns are being endured like a penance the voter must pay for the privilege of living in a democracy. In tight races like New York, vast sums are being spent by incumbent senator Al D’Amato, who’s busy flogging workaholic representative Charles Schumer’s attendance record in Congress. Thus far, the most mediagenic issue of the campaign is Sen. Pothole’s ever-tasteful characterization of his challenger as a “putzhead.”
Like fellow victims in other states, New Yorkers claimed in a pre-election New York Times poll to be aghast, disgusted and alienated by the negative rhetoric of the campaign. This is all understandable, except for one thing: As every political pro knows, this stuff works. The same poll in which New Yorkers expressed their disenchantment with D’Amato’s campaign, 27 percent claimed to be “very concerned” about Schumer’s absenteeism. Ironically, some studies show negative advertising is not necessarily on the increase. It only feels that way. It doesn’t help that in little more than a decade, the art of positive political ads has vanished from the fund of human knowledge, like the medieval art of stained glass. No real marketers could get away with this–although they try.
A decade ago, long-distance companies spent millions polluting the airwaves with “We’re cheaper/They’re lying” attacks and counterattacks. Viewers loathed these spots–but that’s not why they’ve largely disappeared. It was only when the looming prospect of a telecommunications convergence in the ’90s made the long-distance business look like small potatoes did the phone giants step back from zero-sum market-share bickering and get brand religion.
This helps explain why negative ads still reign in politics, and probably always will. In electoral contests, there is no bigger prize than those polling-day numbers, which means the only issue for politicians is market share. It doesn’t matter that the primaries this year drew a record-low 17.4 percent of registered voters or that a measly 35 percent are expected to rouse themselves from their political sleep to vote in the general election. A company that has the largest share in a market category that is shrinking 10 percent a year is called a company in trouble. A politician with the same stats is called a three-term senator.
Political ads are now American’s major source of information about candidates. There’s simply more of them than ever before–35 percent more as of August, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising. In its survey of 128 newscasts in 25 states over three days in late October, Rocky Mountain Media Watch found those programs contained 693 paid political ads against 171 political news stories (and the majority of them were about l’affaire Lewinsky). News directors can’t afford to bore viewers with news about politics, lest they switch to sitcom repeats.
Candidates whose funds outstrip available media inventory need not care. Ever since politics began employing the techniques of marketing four decades ago, the purists cried that candidates were sold like soap. In fact, the situation is reversed. In the real marketplace, customers vote for the products they buy, not against the competition. If politicians really were sold like soap, political campaigns would coax customers to the polls, not drive them away.