Burke’s Lecture

Burke’s Lecture


Negative ads are far more common in politics than in consumer goods. Consumer goods categories usually have multiple rivals. If Ford tears down Chevy, consumers can always turn to Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Volkswagen, and so on.   However, political competition generally involves only two rivals, so negative advertising in politics is efficient. If Wisconsin gubernatorial challenger Mary Burke tears down incumbent governor Scott Walker, voters have nowhere to turn other than Burke.

Secondly, consumer advertising has higher standards for truth than political advertising. While a consumer ad can use puffery (“Tastes great!”), it can’t be demonstrably false. Political advertising has no such restrictions. The media may object to running an ad deemed too blatantly or obviously erroneous but they want the advertising revenue so they won’t look too closely. And the courts give wide latitude to political advertising.

Viewers know the standard for truth in political advertising is low so they are understandably skeptical. To overcome the skepticism, The Burke PAC uses film of Walker promising to deliver exactly what he failed to deliver. The Burke PAC uses Walker as the copywriter for its negative ad. This strategy is effective.

On the other hand, the information that Wisconsin is last among Midwestern states in job creation is simply stated in tandem with some appropriate words on screen. Rather than making a factual claim which viewers may question, why not involve viewers? Maybe just pose a question such as, “What has Walker delivered?” Then, let viewers see what has happened in Wisconsin relative to other Midwestern states. Viewers are much more likely to believe a conclusion they draw themselves than one spelled out as an ad’s claim.

Another factor which undermines the ad’s effectiveness is the music behind the whole ad—it’s almost upbeat. Why pair the opposing candidate with upbeat music? Why not pair the opposing candidate with something more sinister? Political contests are not won by facts but by impressions and inferences.

When voters stand before the choice in the booth, what those voters associate with each candidate will be crucial. Also crucial will be the mental availability of the candidates’ names. We non-consciously use how easily a name comes to mind, or mental availability, as a rule of thumb to help us evaluate people. We pay the most attention to and assume the superiority of people who spring to mind most easily. A TV ad is a golden opportunity to raise visibility for the lesser known challenger but the Burke PAC didn’t rise to the occasion. Rather than superimpose a small, grayed-out name and a tiny photo meant to be ignored, why not super a name and a photo that command attention? Apparently the Burke PAC doesn’t want to link the candidate’s name with negative advertising but the PAC is missing a chance to familiarize Wisconsin voters with Mary Burke.

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