The Advertising Apprentice

June 13, 2011

Power in Political Persuasion?

The great David Ogilvy was never fond of political advertising. In a word he called it dishonest. In Ogilvy on Advertising he wrote, “There is one category of advertising which is totally uncontrolled and flagrantly dishonest: the television commercials for candidates in presidential elections.” A bit further in Ogilvy’s discussion of political ads, he referenced an analysis of the commercials used by John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, where the author of the analysis (Robert Spero) concluded that the spots were “the most deceptive, misleading, unfair and untruthful of all advertising.” That’s a pretty powerful statement; to use words such as deceptive, misleading, and untruthful to describe political ads is pretty damning. Given his strong view on political advertising, it should come as no surprise that Ogilvy refused to have political candidate/parties as clients.

Whereas Ogilvy was vehemently against political advertising, Phil Dusenberry, former executive creative director of BBDO in New York, embraced it. In fact he was very involved in the 1984 Ronald Reagan reelection campaign. To Dusenberry’s credit he, along with Jerry Della Famina and the other advertising specialists that were called “The Tuesday Team” (named for election day), ran a campaign that focused on the positives. He said “positive beats negative every time in the ad effectiveness book.” Here’s an example of a spot that focused on the positives that Dusenberry and company created:

Part of what enabled Dusenberry to be successful in creating some powerful political ads, was that he believed in the importance of the RAISE matrix which states, “Good research demands brilliant analysis which inspires blazing insights that lead to groundbreaking strategies and award winning executions.” I think this is a principle that can be effectively applied in not just advertising, but all disciplines; in order to achieve great results (execution) you need to have really strong research and solid analysis.

Consider the following: in 2008, the year of the last American Presidential election, approximately $2.6 BILLION was spent in the United States on political advertising. Let me repeat that for emphasis, 2.6 billion dollars was spent in 2008 on political advertising alone. Needless to say it’s a huge business for the advertising industry. It’s the reason why political consultants like Frank Luntz, a man I first introduced you to in my entry on PBS’ The Persuaders, are in business. You’ll remember that Luntz said, “It doesn’t matter what you want to tell the public. It’s about what they want to hear.” He’s been quite successful in importing techniques from market research into the political sphere by conducting focus groups for clients and honing in language that triggers a reaction in people. He tries to find the works that grab hold of us and force us to act on an emotional level. To read more about Frank Luntz and his use of language testing, I highly suggest you check out the following profile from The New Yorker. Not only is it a valuable read for people in advertising, but anyone in the larger field of communications will benefit from the knowledge it imparts.

At the end of Ogilvy on Advertising, a book that was originally published in 1983, Ogilvy predicted, “Candidates for political office will stop using dishonest advertising.” Was he accurate in his prediction? To find out the answer to this question, I go to advertising commentator, Bob Garfield. In PBS’ The Persuaders he says, “Political advertising is a stain on democracy… Year after year it gets worse… (it’s) just the assembly of nominal facts into hideous, outrageous lies.” So not only does Garfield take a much more extreme position against political advertising, but you can extrapolate that he believes the nature of this advertising has got worse since Ogilvy made his prediction nearly 30 years ago.

We’ve heard the criticism of political advertising, namely that it is not truthful. But is this form of advertising effective? Does a political ad that’s filled with inaccurate statements persuade people to vote for the given candidate? Well the answer depends on who you ask; scholars attempting to answer that very question have conducted countless studies and the results vary. Some suggest that attack ads have the effect of alienating voters to the point where people vote for one of the other candidates. While other studies have revealed that negative political ads are effective in persuading undecided and uninformed voters to vote for the particular candidate. So really the answer depends on who you ask.

The $2.6 billion spent on political advertising in 2008 is indicative that regardless of its lack of honesty and its effectiveness, or lack thereof, political advertising is here to stay. Despite Ogilvy’s optimism that the defining trait of these ads, the dishonesty, would disappear it appears that for the foreseeable future, during elections we’ll continue to be subjected to mostly negative ads. However, we as voters, hold the power to decide in how we respond to such ads.

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