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How Political Advertising Is Killing Marketing (And How To Fight Back)

Political advertising ought to be stopped. It's the only really dishonest kind of advertising that's left.
                - David Ogilvy

IMB_Politician If marketing were a person, political advertising would be its cancer. I work in marketing and have never worked on a political campaign, so despite my choice to live in Washington DC – my perspective is not one of a political insider. Instead, I am a marketer and voting American who sees with increasing frequency TV spots, radio ads, print advertising and online banners designed to instill fear, spread lies and intentionally confuse people. To some degree, the "Rally to Restore Sanity" this past weekend in DC was inspired by this advertising.

Yet this is not a partisan problem limited to one side or the other. The central problem with political advertising in the US is that it is has become more important to fabricate a list of negative things that your opponent stands for instead of having to stand for something yourself. Instead of electing people based on their ideas and qualifications, this advertising tries to motivate us to vote for someone based on a fear that the other guy (or girl) might win.

Aside from the politics of it, though, as marketers we need to care about this because it is destroying the credibility of our profession. When people see advertising as manipulating them with half-truths, this perception extends far beyond politics. The next time you are trying to promote a product or service, you have to do it to the same cynical public that has become wary of marketing messages due in large part to unethical and misleading forms of marketing such as political advertising.

Though this may seem like a big problem, I believe the solution is actually quite simple. Political advertising should have to follow the same parameters as any other kind of marketing. Coke cannot create and run a marketing campaign solely talking about the 12 ways that Pepsi could kill you, steal your school's funding and pull the plug on your sick grandma. Why is this acceptable in political advertising?

Right now, there are vague rules around "misrepresentation" – but most competent communicators can find a source for just about any statement. The rule needs to be stronger. After the election tomorrow, we need new legislation that makes it illegal for political ads to talk about opponents instead of themselves. These so-called "attack ads" are at the heart of the problem.

If you want to run a marketing message on behalf of a candidate for public office, it should be about what he or she stands for and what they will do if elected. When more of this marketing focuses on positive messages instead of negative, then we all win. As marketers and business people with products and services to promote, we all need to stand up and lead this call – because it is in our best interests as well. Not just as professionals, but as citizens.

11 thoughts on “How Political Advertising Is Killing Marketing (And How To Fight Back)”

  1. Absolutely on board with your call for stronger legislation for political advertising. It seems ludicrous that campaigns are built and sustained by the perceived failures of another. Brand isn’t just about a logo or a website or a TV ad; it’s about who you are and what you stand for. What does it say about a candidate when he or she places an ad accusing another candidate of being a witch or a member of the Taliban?

    We tackled a similar topic on Friday on my agency’s Culture Fried blog [ Nice to see we’re not the only ones offended by these “attack ads.” Advertising can be and often is a force for good.

  2. Totally agree that we need candidates to take a stand on the issues they support not just go out mudslinging. It completely does a disservice to our industry and to the candidates because it suggests that there’s little out there that we can trust. And that’s what marketing is all about–building trust and credibility.

  3. I doubt you will get very many people who will disagree with you plus you have a valid point. You can’t list a million reasons why a product can kill you if you are Coke or Pepsi so why can you with an election? That is just wrong on so many levels. If they had to stand up for what they believed in that would make it less sexy and maybe that is what they are afraid of? Are they afraid of their own values coming out in public? They are all probably there but you don’t have to spend millions of dollars in ad spending to prove it.

    Things need to be changed. I am glad two things were invented for situations like this. The DVR and the mute button. Which are advertising professionals worst enemy but if all we are doing is tuning out anyway. They should know we are.

  4. Negative advertising (in politics) works. We all feel the pain of what we stand to lose more acutely than the feel-good ideas of what we stand to gain. And if the ads didn’t work, they wouldn’t run them.

    Politics is branding with a deadline. There’s an election day, after which you’re stuck with your decision until the next cycle. As such, there’s more at stake than typical longer term ad campaigns.

    Much like office politics, political advertising is part of life and we have to live with it. Not playing along is just a question of your own research and what you decide to do with it.

  5. I can’t imagine how much money these candidates flushed down the toilet. Every single piece of mail I received for a candidate I threw in the trash right away. Remember, people sort their mail over their trash can. A big glossy picture with your name on it does nothing for me.

  6. This is a nice utopian idea, but if Coke and Pepsi only had one day on which to sell their products to prospective customers and the loser couldn’t sell again for 2-4 more years, you can bet your life their ads would be every bit as negative as political ads are.

  7. @Aliera – Thanks for the comment, I enjoyed checking out your blog post as well, and it is a great point about how this doesn’t portray America as a country in a positive light for anyone inside or outside of the country.

    @Kelly – Agree on the trust and credibility – it would be nice if more of them did take a stand as you suggest based on what they believed.

    @Patricia – Thanks for sharing that NPR link, it’s a great piece.

    @Ideas at the Bottom – You’re right and I think that policy restrictions are exactly what we need.

    @Jamie – I agree that it is in our power to tune these out, but it is very tough to ignore – just as the tabloids at the checkout lane are tough to avoid looking at. You may not believe that Brad Pitt’s illegitimate baby has been abducted by aliens, but you can’t help checking out the photoshopped cover photo anyway.

    @Stephen – I appreciate your point, and I think you’re right that they do work. But if a pharma company was able to promise that their drug cured cancer because it worked for one or two patients, that marketing would work too. The point isn’t that lying won’t work … of course it will. The point is that they shouldn’t be allowed to lie in the first place. The problem with how they are able to publish these messages right now is that the rules around what they are able to say about their opponents are very vague. So most claims are completely made up, and we are expected to be able to tell the difference. The cover story is wrong and printing a retraction the next day on page 43 doesn’t help anyone. The rules need to disallow it in the first place.

    @Small Business Internet Marketing – Good for you to choose to ignore those messages.

    @Political Ad Guy – Interesting point, that the advertising goes so negative because of the high stakes and short time frame. I’m not sure I agree with that point, as I think it is more a symptom of the fact that you are marketing people versus people instead of products – and that means that there is lots of gray area to make up your own points about what people say. In any case, just because something is effective doesn’t mean that it should be allowed.

  8. only people in the mktk/advertising industry would even think to consider that political ads reflect poorly on the ad industry. Average consumer understands that there is a difference between political ads and, well, normal commercials. industry is safe.
    Also, I’m sure the reason political ad guys make such crappy ads is because those crappy ads actually work. [they need to sell a product–the candidate–under extreme time constraints so there isn’t the same longterm strategy involved as, say, coke would have].


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