Why Politicians Monkey Around With Negative Ads

3 min read

Some of the Bloody Deeds of General Jackson
Some of the Bloody Deeds of General Jackson

Has the advertising this election season seemed particularly nasty? If you think so, you have selective memory. American elections have been dominated by negative ads for decades—centuries, even. Current popstar sensation Alexander Hamilton attacked Thomas Jefferson in America’s first contested presidential election, way back in 1796. Andrew Jackson, the Donald Trump of his day, was attacked viciously by incumbent John Quincy Adams with a series of what became known as the Coffin Handbills. The coffins symbolized six militiamen Jackson was alleged to have ordered executed. That appears to have been the least of the accusations against Jackson, which also included adultery, murder, and—wait for it—cannibalism.

I’m not sure Hillary Clinton has ever been accused of actually eating people (or has she?), but those other charges, more or less, have been leveled at her, as well. She’s endured a lot of mudslinging throughout her campaign for president.

But Ms. Clinton went negative early and often, too. From practically the moment it became clear that she’d oppose Mr. Trump in the general election, the Clinton campaign and its friends have been employing attack ads to smear her opponent—usually with his own words and gestures.

That’s because Ms. Clinton knows something important about negative ads: They work.

to win the election, you have to scream like a monkey

In his excellent book Seducing Strangers: How to Get People to Buy What You’re Selling, Josh Weltman relates a story about researchers studying animals in the Amazon rainforest. “They found that any animal will heed the warning call of any other animal, regardless of species,” he writes. In other words, if the monkeys are screaming about a predator, the all the birds and the deer know it’s time to get away, too.

But those animals aren’t so quick to trust other species to tell them when everything’s a-okay. “Monkeys will trust only other monkeys, toucans trust only other toucans, and so on,” writes Weltman.

Ms. Clinton’s advertising approach has been a classic monkey-scream. Her ads work because they put us on high alert. She’s been fortunate that Mr. Trump’s own words have been so inflammatory that she doesn’t have to do much more than show him in action to raise our awareness of a threat—to women, to people of color, to democracy, etc.

But you hate negative ads, don’t you?

You do. We all do. We’ve been on high alert for a year or more now, and it’s only going to get worse for the next couple of weeks. Here in Indiana, we’re being bombarded with disturbing, grainy images of Evan Bayh and Todd Young and John Gregg and Eric Holcomb and the candidates in all sorts of down-ballot races for everything from the House of Representatives to the local school board.

We hate them. They make us feel queasy—dirty, even. But, in the words of Josh Weltman, “Negative ads work because people behave like animals.”

The characters in Black Mirror react to screaming political animals on TV, too.

Weltman also relates the story of a campaign he worked on for Whole Foods that pointed out all the additives and unappetizing stuff in conventional grocery items. He points out that “what we called negative advertising was not perceived as negative at all by Whole Foods customers. They…told the store managers how much they appreciated the straight talk and honest information.”

Similarly, if you’re a Democrat, you may be cheering the anti-Trump advertising, seeing it not as negative but rather as a public service. If you’re a Republican, the anti-Hillary advertising may make you feel better.

Me? At this point, I’m keeping the TV and the radio off and watching Black Mirror on Netflix. I like my entertainment dark. I just like to make sure it’s one hundred percent fiction.


Monkey photo by Ludovic Bertron from New York City, Usa (Primate) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.