At the height of the political season with so-called “attack ads” overwhelming the airwaves, it may be time to take a breath and to examine the positive effects of negative political ads. Comparative (negative) political ads are not bad. Counterintuitive, isn’t it?

During many years of managing political campaigns, I was sometimes criticized for “my approach.” (Especially by those who lost 2-1 to my candidate).That approach is outlined in an article that I recently came across simply by googling “negative-comparative political advertising.” It sounds as if I could have written it myself. Keep in mind that when you spend your life and career in marketing and advertising, you become a strong believer in both.

What many people fail to comprehend is that there are two parts to a political campaign. In one part, you create the image, defining and promoting the reasons to vote for your candidate (accomplishments and goals). In the other part, you define your opponent by the use of comparative marketing. In other words, you give voters some of the reasons not to vote for the opponent.

An election is a competitive contest; there is a winner and a loser. The question is, which one do you want to be? You use whatever it takes, but the information must be totally factual, and the source of information identified. It must be completely honest. Nothing that I ever wrote for a political campaign was ever challenged successfully.

On Oct. 29, 2010, The Washington Times printed a column, “Positive effects of negative political ads,” by John F. Gaski, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame.

Here are some excerpts:


“…[H]ostility toward so-called negative political advertising seems to have reached epidemic proportions, as usual. The reaction is understandable on an emotional level, given the shallow superficial thinking most people apply to such phenomena … This anti-negative attitude is at least partly grounded in ignorance.

“What is known in the political industry as ‘negative advertising’ or ‘negative attacks,’ is a variant of the well-established promotional technique of comparative advertising. …

“What may come as a surprise to some readers is that comparative commercial advertising is … among public regulators … and scholars who study the subject scientifically considered socially desirable, on balance, as a positive informational force. … Even negative advertising improves the information environment for consumers by revealing information they otherwise would not likely obtain, thereby facilitating more informed choices.

“The same applies to negative political advertising and the corresponding positive consequences for voters. … An additional benefit is that negative political ads are more likely to contain substantive, policy-oriented material. … Some seemingly self-evident truth (‘negative advertising is bad’) actually is not true at all.

“Think about … how much you have learned about the candidates … through each other’s comparative ads?

“Aren’t there many facts that you would never have received had the candidates … been constrained to positive, fluffy messages about themselves? The negative campaigning may be unpleasant for the audience, or maybe people just posture as if offended out of political correctness, but ‘politics ain’t beanbag.’


“Substantive negative ads can actually be helpful communication.

“The candidates who have engaged in the negativity have generally, and ironically, performed a public service. (People who are annoyed by this tactic because of their misunderstanding need to grow up and get over it.)

“The main message here is: Relax, don’t worry, be happy; negative political advertising almost certainly does more good than harm.

“One final observation, this time a hypothesis: It is generally the pols who deserve the most criticism who decry negative (or comparative) advertising the loudest whenever it is they who are scrutinized. Perhaps that hypersensitivity is why certain candidates have tried creatively and falsely to define any disagreement with them, or even a question they don’t like, as mudslinging. Watch for this tendency.”.

Gaski , a member of the faculty at Notre Dame since 1980, has authored more than 120 articles and papers, and once was named one of the top 100 best researchers in marketing in the country.

This year’s Mike Michaud vs. Eliot Cutler vs. Paul LePage battle for governor in Maine is a perfect example of what Gaski is talking about. Positive image and comparative (negative) pieces often are created and released simultaneously. Every politicians’ record is definitely “fair game.”


Each campaign that I ever ran utilized “comparative advertising.” Candidates who fail to use this technique are short-changing the voters from the information they need and deserve. Worst of all, a candidate who gives the opponent a free pass, especially if the opponent presents a target-rich aura of vulnerability, deserves to lose, and usually does. My bet is that some comparative (negative) ad containing an irrefutable fact will influence your vote this year.

A professional political campaign will defeat an amateur campaign every time.

I herewith rest my case, content to leave the verdict on comparative (negative) political ads once again to the voters on Nov. 4 and to history.

Don Roberts, a former city councilor and former vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta, is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District.

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