the_candidateHave you ever wanted to ask the politicians, campaign managers, and political advisers a question or two about why they campaign the way they do?

While most of us would probably rather shout: “Stop the insanity you *&$!@#! meatheads” than ask a question, I think we’d also probably want to ask at least one question about negative attack ads.

Since I’m fortunate enough to correspond with an incredibly successful campaign strategist/marketer, I actually asked him: “Does the public really respond that well to blatantly nothing-but-negative attack ads?  At what point do people tune out from the BS being slung in all directions?

Of course the e-mail correspondence in which I asked this was a lot more rambling than that, but that was the gist of my questions. Here are the best parts of his response to me [emphasis in quotes added by me]:

  • Voters have a pretty good, although far from perfect, bullshit detector… they have a pretty good sense of what rings false. It’s not perfect, but I remain surprised at what voters will disregard in attack ads…
  • “And a lot of political advertisers have very poor instincts and can take factual attacks and frame them in such a way that no one believes the ad… If your ad leaves the viewer/reader/listener thinking to themselves that no rational person would have taken the action claimed and that there must be more to the story, then the advertiser has lost, whether or not the factual basis of the ad was true.”
  • “a candidate has some very deep image problems when voters will consider a false attack as credible. For an incumbent—and this year most of the candidates getting hammered are incumbents—the best defense to almost any attack is to have developed a deep reservoir of goodwill, through good constituent service along with other ways.
  • “The effectiveness of the attack is also predicated by the credibility of the attacker, not simply the credibility of the message. If the attacker is an unknown, or has high image negatives, the viewers are far less likely to give the message the credence it may or may not deserve.”
  • “Political advertising has different goals though. At the end of the day, you need to get the client to take a positive action toward your client. You need them to buy a new heat pump from you or something. While it would be nice to get a voter to vote for me. I do almost as well if a voter that would otherwise vote for my opponent chooses not to vote at all. At some level, if you’re selling a discretionary product or service, you still have to get the buyer to choose you. In an election, getting the voter to choose no one can work beautifully, even it makes your 12th grade civics teacher want to vomit.”

And here’s what struck me about those responses in regards to regular advertising:

1) You can’t fool people by glossing over unfavorable parts of the story.

If an ad sounds one-sided, people won’t believe it.  This works for regular advertising and web copy, too, by the way.  It’s why admitting the downside is crucial to building trust and credibility for your message. You can’t be all things to all men, so don’t be afraid to say:

This, of course, assumes that you have prospects for whom you ARE the perfect choice, areas where you DO specialize, and disproportionately higher levels of quality, service, and results that more than off-set the downsides.  Still, few will believe you if you only communicate the upside, just like voters discount negative ads which lead them to believe that there’s more to the story. Ultimately, buyers know there has to be a catch somewhere – that  there has to be something in it for you.

2) If you’re already a category leader, build customer goodwill to fend off competitor attacks

If you’re the leader, you’re also the best person to steal market-share from.  Customer retention, customer loyalty, and customer good will need to be built and developed before someone comes in with a (superficially) more attractive offer designed to lure customers away.  And keep in mind that there’s a difference between loyalty programs and retention programs.

Although Apple occasionally ships a product with a glitch or flaw, or makes a marketing move that leaves customers feeling irked, it’s always smoothed over.  No matter how much Microsoft executives want to gloat that the “iPhone 4 might be [Apple’s] Vista,” that stuff just never sticks.

3) Credibility is tied to both reputation and perceived intent

People aren’t stupid. If you stand to directly benefit by flinging mud at someone else, they’ll discount your message.  You have too much of a vested interest to be credible.

So you’re ad should never focus on beating up competitors so much as helping potential customers.  Instead of a “Brand X Vacuum Cleaners Suck (or, um, don’t suck well enough, that is ;)” stance, you should take a “If you’ve ever been irritated by this problem with your vacuum cleaners, I’v found a solution you might be interested in” approach. And make sure you have established your authority to speak on the subject.

Just watch how James Dyson both focuses on the problem (not the competition) while establishing his first hand experience and engineering credibility:

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