Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shock Without Awe

Get ready for a spectacle like no other.

It won’t be long before you will be witness to more political advertising, much of the negative, than a human being can be expected to tolerate.

Think that's an exaggeration? According to some estimates, $9.8 billion will be spend on political ads just this year.

It's sort of a legitimized form of electronic brainwashing. Or, if you wish shock without the awe.

The fact is, most people really don’t like political advertising.

It’s a steady diet of claims and counterclaims, appeals, distortions,
attacks and just plain dirt repeated over and over.

But while you can cover your eyes, plug your ears and try to look away, you
can’t hide.

In fact, according to a story in the New York Times, Mitt Romney’s
campaign thinks it has found a way to get its ads in front of the
increasing number of voters who are not watching traditional
television: Find these people online, and show them the ads there.

“The Romney campaign and a team of online behavior analysts have
spent 18 months…sifting through data on the browsing habits of tens
of millions of computer users as the campaign builds a richly
detailed cache of potential supporters,” the Times reported.

Not to be outdone, the Obama campaign is even most aggressive in trying to reach voters
online, so far spending more on Internet advertising than on
television, radio and telemarketing combined, according to the
Washington Post. Click on an Obama for President ad and it will
follow wherever your Internet search will carry you.

It is indeed a brave new world. But while the method might be
different, the madness remains the same. He who slings the most mud
usually wins.

So I got to wondering recently: Does this stuff really work? Do
Americans really cast their ballot on who has the slickest
commercials or nastiest attack ads?

Isn’t the media covering the presidential contest 24/7? Won’t there
be presidential candidate debates? Isn’t it essentially the same
message we had four years ago? And four years before that? Tax and
spend nanny state liberals versus government slashing conservatives
who coddle the rich and impose their moral views on others?

We’re not idiots. Why do we need to be inundated with billions of
dollars in attack ads that play fast and lose with the facts? A valid
question. Also, depending on whom you ask, an overly simplistic one.

According to academics, it simply comes down to this: negative
information is more memorable than positive.

Ruthann Weaver Laiscy, a University of Georgia professor, writing for CNN, put it this way:

“I often use an analogy of running water from my garden hose. If I
stand at the top of a smooth concrete driveway and turn on the water,
it flows quickly, directly, and fairly seamlessly to the bottom. This
is much how a positive message goes through the brain.
“If I take my same hose and stand at the top of a grassy hill and
turn it on, the water travels more slowly than on the concrete hill,
it picks up some loose dirt, and inevitably some of it gets "stuck"
in grass along the way.

“Negative information, too, travels more slowly because of its
enhanced complexity. It benefits from the negativity bias, and
inevitably some of that negative information gets "stuck" in our
minds, even if we don't like the ad or agree with its contents.”

Let’s see if I understand. So when I see my wife, instead of saying
,“you look nice tonight,” I say, “you look like you’ve put on a few
pounds,” I can expect that message to remain with her for a long,
long, time?

You bet. Apply that to political hit pieces and you get the picture.

But it doesn’t always work that way.

In the 2008 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, Republican incumbent
Elizabeth Dole attempted an attack ad on Democratic challenger Kay
Hagan by tying her to atheists.

Dole's campaign released an ad questioning Hagan's religion and it
included a voice saying "There is no God!" over a picture of Kay
Hagan's face. The voice was not Hagan's but the ad implied that it

Initially, it was thought the ad would work as that old time religion
has historically been a very important issue to voters in South.
But Hagan responded forcefully with an ad saying that she was a
Sunday school teacher and was a deeply religious person.

Hagan's small lead in polls doubled and she won the race by a nine
point margin.

The lesson? Be careful who and how you smear.

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