04/18/2013 05:47 EDT | Updated 06/18/2013 05:12 EDT

What's Worse Than an Attack Ad? A Syrupy Sweet One


Pundits, academics and media experts are always condemning negative political attack ads.

Just recently, for instance, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne fumed about how "they pollute debate, and coarsen the culture."

But to my mind, there's actually something much worse than a nasty negative attack ad, and that's a saccharine, upbeat positive ad.

Typically they feature gushy imagery of candidates, often surrounded by loving family members and an adorable puppy, spewing out platitudes about how much they love their country.

Sometimes they even feature a politician standing out in the middle of the woods, for some reason.


To me this is worse than coarsening culture, it's dulling culture, it's taking what should be an exciting rough and tumble debate and turning it into a boring syrupy goo.

Still I see the purpose for such emotional fluff; it's to make voters trust and feel good about a candidate or party.

There's nothing wrong with that.

My point is just because an ad is positive and inoffensive doesn't necessarily mean it will add to meaningful democratic debate or educate voters.

To put it another way, like their negative counterparts, positive ads are often emotionally manipulative and intellectually vacuous.

Indeed, just about all political ads -- positive or negative -- are designed to press our emotional hot buttons.

The reason for this is simple. When it comes to TV, you have maybe 30 seconds to communicate a message to a person who is probably only half paying attention and who is only vaguely aware of what's going on politically.

That means you can't engage the viewer on an intellectual level, so instead of getting viewers to think, you want them to react and the quickest way to elicit a reaction is through an emotional appeal.

Yet, you never see columnists or pundits rant or rave about the need to control, regulate or eliminate emotion-laden positive ads.

They have a negative opinion it seems only about negative ads.

Why is this?

Well, I suspect it's because negative ads appeal to our baser emotions, i.e. hate and fear.

In other words, it's not the ads the critics dislike, it's human nature or more precisely what negative ads reveal about our human nature, that emotionally speaking, we are not too much different from our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Like our cave-dwelling forebears, we crave security, we fear the unknown, we are wary of outsiders.

An attack ad doesn't create these primal emotions, it taps into them.

On the other hand, a positive ad taps into emotions that are a little more advanced, emotionally speaking, things like hope and pride.

But while both approaches can be effective, when it comes to impact, when it comes to mobilizing people for political action, negative appeals usually trump positive ones.

Again, that's just human nature. It's much easier to get people to be against rather than for something.

This explains why negative campaigning often works and why politicians often resort to it.

So unless political communication is banned altogether or unless human nature dramatically changes, hitting emotional buttons -- including negative ones -- will always be with us in some form or other.

I don't see that as pollution, I see it as freely engaging in democratic debate.

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