Attack ads suck. More on that later. But first, a little bit about the power of positivity.
The greatest political commercial ever created is, by a wide margin, Morning in America, which in no small part helped Ronald Reagan nab 49 of 50 states on his way to re-election in 1984. It’s beautiful, it’s uplifting, and it worked. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about spots also spend a lot of time raving about this one.
There are other monumental examples of positive ads getting the job done for our American friends. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s charming We Like Ike (animation by Disney and music by Irving Berlin) and its no-frills companion Eisenhower Answers America spots set the standard for what political advertising could be. In 1960, John F. Kennedy unleashed Kennedy for Me and Bill Clinton had The Man from Hope in 1992.
In more recent memory, there was Barack Obama’s Yes We Can, a brilliant web-only piece incorporating top-tier influencers, delicious production values and some very inspiring language from the man himself.
So, what makes these ads tick? Advertising is by no means an exact science, but there are a few common threads running through this pioneering work that in my opinion make up the anatomy of a great political ad. Here they are.
They’re overwhelmingly positive. All of these spots are uplifting, future-forward and, in most cases, downright inspiring. They may nibble around the edges of calling out the competition, but they never quite go all the way there.
They avoid specifics. While they talk in generalities about what could be or what’s already great about America, they don’t dig into the platform specifics. They stay top level in order to avoid activating the rational and skeptical parts of our brains.
They’re emotionally-driven. On the other hand, they really do take aim at the right sides of our brains, striving to make us feel safe, secure and optimistic about the possibilities of a better future. Emotions imprint better than facts, so emotions sell better than facts. That’s a fact.
They have a point of view. While they may not get into specifics, they certainly take a top-line stance about what could be and what should be. That’s what fuels the emotional hook and gives us something to talk about at dinner parties, even if we don’t know or understand the underlying policies at play.
They’re beautiful. All of these spots are well crafted and even downright stylish. While voters probably don’t like to admit it, we all like beautiful things, so a good-looking spot is bound to do better than an awkwardly executed or hastily produced one. A good idea poorly executed isn’t going to get as many people excited about it.
I’m sad to report that we in Canada haven’t done quite as well in the political advertising space as our friends to the south. Justin Trudeau’s 2015 Real Change spot comes close, as does its companion piece Channel Change. However, these miss the mark on a few of the above points, focusing on the competition a bit too much and digging into the specifics a bit too directly. That said, they’re well-crafted, mainly positive and somewhat emotionally-driven.
Enough to get the job done, it would seem.
In Canada, our most famous campaign commercials are unfortunately quite negative. Downright nasty, even. Resumés. The face ad. Just visiting. Secret agendas. These are not proud moments in advertising. Although I must admit, I have a bit of love for this border erasing classic.
Once again, the yanks have us beat. There have been some really well-made attack ads south of 49, such as Daisy, McGovern Defense, and the delightfully long-form Confessions of a Republican.
But here’s the thing: even when attack ads are good, they still totally suck.
They don’t suck because they don’t work, because sometimes they do. They don’t suck because they can’t be smart or well crafted, because they can. They suck because they forget a fundamental underlying principle of advertising: you don’t build a brand by tearing down your competitors. You build your brand by… building your brand. With positive messages that make us think, make us feel and inspire us in some way.
While attacking opponents may hurt their brand in the short term and generate quick wins – including possibly getting elected – it’s playing the short game. Mudslinging will serve to denigrate your brand and undermine your credibility over the long haul. That’s why you don’t see successful brands attacking their competitors. Their marketing teams are too smart and too sophisticated for that. They won’t damage the long game for quick wins.
Make no mistake, political parties are brands, and long-standing ones at that. The candidates are current-generation products in the decades-long product portfolios of their parties. The long game matters more than anyone candidate or issue.
In the end, we don’t vote against people or parties. We vote for them. Tell us why we should vote for you. Make us feel why we should vote for you. Because then we’ll vote for you, we’ll evangelize for you, and you’ll build your party’s brand over the long haul rather than eroding it.
We’re better than this, Canada.