By Jim Mullen
Signal Contributing Writer
Now that the midterm ballots have been cast, I’m starting to enjoy watching TV again.
We’re back to commercials for toothpaste and laundry detergent, instead of the wall-to-wall political ads. Regular ads for everyday products are so uplifting compared to the unpleasantness we’re subjected to during election years.
They say the two major parties spent around $5 billion on this last election, and most of that money went to your local TV stations, which were more than happy to take it. For all the nonsense we hear about Facebook and Twitter influencing campaigns, they are mosquitoes compared to the effect of television ads on elections.
Still, the political experts say that negative ads work. Do they really? If that’s true, why doesn’t Coca-Cola bash Pepsi in all its advertising? Why doesn’t Budweiser say you’re going to die a horrible death if you drink Coors? Why doesn’t Tide say that if you use Wisk, your clothes won’t just come out dirty, they’ll also fall apart? How would you feel about flying if the commercial for an airline said, “Our planes don’t crash as often as the other guys'”? You’d stop flying altogether. Even used car dealers don’t bash each other the way politicians do.
Big corporate advertisers don’t run attack ads because they know it will make both products look bad. What is Coca-Cola going to say about Pepsi? That it’s a bunch of unhealthy sugar water that’s just going to make you fat and probably give you diabetes? Pot, meet kettle. Yet how many times have you seen a political ad where someone running for office calls their opponent a “career politician”? You know — that thing the new guy desperately wants to become. Pot, meet kettle.
Why is political advertising such a turn-off? Well, let’s talk about Clydesdales. What product did you just think of? Even if you don’t like beer, or don’t drink that brand, you like Clydesdales, don’t you? That company made positive commercials that give you a positive association. Now think about commercials for cat products. Lots of those commercials have very cute cats in them, even though the ads themselves are usually about how stinky cat boxes are, or how to get cat hair out of your sofa, or for air fresheners so your boyfriend won’t know you have a stinking, shedding cat. The problems they’re addressing are negative, but the ads are still positive. Even if you don’t like cats, the ads don’t make you run out of the room pulling your hair out, the way political ads do.
Yet over and over again, we are told by political gurus that attack ads work. The evidence for that is pretty slim. Think how many of the recent races were decided by a razor-thin margin. If attack ads were all that effective, you would expect the margins to be huge, wouldn’t you? Shouldn’t the candidate with the “best” attack ad absolutely trounce the other?
How is it that politicians and their teams are so bad at advertising? It’s almost as if they never watched television before. In effective corporate advertising, the product says how it’s better (or at least different) than similar products. The ad itself is entertaining. That’s the exact opposite of what most political advertising does.
Most automobile commercials say very little about the car, but concentrate on how much you’ll enjoy driving the car. Airlines show you the great places they will take you. Is it so hard for political ads to do the same thing? Just paint a picture of what the future could be: “Vote for so-and-so and see how much better your life will be. You’ll never be in a traffic jam again, and your mother-in-law will be much easier to live with.”
If a politician can’t come up with something as simple as a good, effective TV ad, what are the chances they’ll be effective legislators?
Contact Jim Mullen at firstname.lastname@example.org.