Political Advertising and Polarization

I think of typical political attack ads as sounding something like this quote from a new Chris Christie ad: “Hillary Clinton will be nothing more than a third term of Barack Obama.”

Or, perhaps, something like this ad from Ben Carson, “[Barack Obama] doesn’t want you to know that his and Hillary Clinton’s failed tough talk but do-nothing policies are responsible for the meltdown in the Middle East.”

If a candidate is feeling particularly devious, they may attack an opponent by quoting them out of context or by showing unflattering images, but as its most basic, an attack ad is a reiteration – often without validation – of the narrative a candidate is trying to impart upon their opponent.

So I took particular note of a new ad from Hilary Clinton which not only names and quotes several republican opponents, but which uses her air time to share footage from their campaign events.

From a marketing perspective, this is surprising on several fronts. First, there’s that old adage – often, though possibility apocryphally, ascribed to the infamous PT Barnum – “Any publicity is good publicity.” That is, simply giving air time to an opponent – even while attacking them – may ultimately help raise their profile while the details of the context are forgotten. Of course, this expression is hardly an un-alterable fact – as many disgraced companies and candidates can attest.

Second, there’s a lot of debate about the effect of negative ads. Many argue that they are effective because people tend to remember negative things better than positive things. But, as the New York Times writes, “negative ads work, except when they don’t,” and they come with the real risk of dragging the ad’s creator down into the mud as well.

But what’s particularly striking about the Clinton ad is that – aside from a clip of Christie telling someone to “sit down and shut up” – I can imagine most of the republican footage being used by the republican candidate it targets.

For example, Clinton quotes Ted Cruz: “…defund Planned Parenthood.” This isn’t something Cruz would seek to deny or hide – it is, in fact, the main selling point of Cruz’s ad, “Values“.

This type of political campaign highlights the starkness of American political polarization. Yes, the ad includes the typical attack-ad tropes of ominous music and poor lighting, but in many ways…Clinton literally lets her opponents speak for themselves and then mic-drops I rest my case.

She doesn’t need to say any more…to Democrats, the Republican candidates are disturbing enough.

I’ve noticed similar signs in more informal settings – on Facebook, for example, there’s been what I can only describe as an attack on Girl Scout cookies going around. “You deserve to know what Girl Scout cookies fund,” the image reads, going on to list the Girl Scout’s partnership with Planned Parenthood for sex education and the fact they they welcome transgender women as peers.

Of course, in my circles, most people are sharing this “attack” ad with the notes like, “Good! Let’s buy more cookies!”

And, in case you’re worried the whole thing is some sort of elaborate hoax, there are, in fact, real groups raising concerns about the Girl Scouts.

I hardly mean to indicate here that all pro-life advocates are anti-Girl Scouts or anti-sex education – but this is exactly the dichotomy that polarization sets up for us.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, really. I have to imagine that in conservative circles they are similarly mocking liberal paraphernalia, and all of it serves to entrench the “us” versus “them” mindset. All of us equally horrified that the other half the countries feels a certain way.

I don’t know how we change that, or how we break through that. But it does seem like we’ve reached a whole new level of polarization when the exact same message can be greeted so differently.

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