Negative political ads — a new trend?

Published: May 8, 2013
A graduate of the London School of Economics and a Daniel Pearl fellow, the writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune in Lahore

A graduate of the London School of Economics and a Daniel Pearl fellow, the writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune in Lahore

“Sometimes politics can seem very small. But the choice you face, it couldn’t be bigger” is what US President Barack Obama said to the American voters in an election ad for his 2012 campaign. According to an article in The New York Times, the ad was one that attacked Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Obama chose to address the voters for a few seconds because he was afraid of coming across as “too negative” and turning off his supporters and potential voters. But in political advertising, can there be anything that is too negative? Looking at the 2013 media campaign being run by some of our political parties, the answer seems to be no.

Taking the cake for what perhaps might be the most negative media campaign till date is the PPP. If its ads are to be taken at face value, the party doesn’t have anything to show for its five years in power except gathering dirt on the PML-N. It doesn’t seem to have many ads that tell the people of what it has achieved since the last elections. There were a few positive ads about the Benazir Income Support Programme but as the election draws near, they have been replaced by either attack ads or ads that try to cash in the emotional capital that the party thinks it still has.

Coming back to the attack advertising, it started with newspapers ads, accusing the PML-N of cancelling projects that would have ensured sufficient electricity for the country. Next came an ad attacking Shahbaz Sharif. The disappointments kept coming. On a distant second position is the PTI. Its attack ad shows video clips and newspaper headlines of leaders of the two major parties promising to work together. Their aim is to discredit the two rivals together. The PML-N and the PML-Q, on the other hand, are mainly trying to convince voters by listing their achievements.

Attacking opponents has long been considered fair game. Also, if research is to be believed, negative campaigning is ‘informative’ — it can encourage people to find out more about their prospective representatives. So, why am I so disappointed by these ads? Maybe it is because I was expecting a better campaign from the PPP. I believed that there were positive aspects about its rule that it could have sold to the voters. Maybe it is a lack of confidence on the part of the party. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I am still an undecided voter.

According to a research that mapped the effects of attack ads on voters’ behaviour in the US (I wish I had Pakistani research but I don’t), I am potentially part of the group that is the most likely to be affected by negative advertising. I am affected, but I don’t think it is the effect the PPP had in mind. Why? A couple of other researches might have the answer. One of them says that attack ads are more effective when they are about candidates who are relatively unknown to the public. The PML-N has a strong vote bank, which is not going to be swayed. Another says that negative ads have a better chance of having the desired results when challengers target the incumbents. The incumbents, says the research, hurt themselves by engaging in negative campaigning. So in theory, the PTI’s attack ad can succeed in making people vote for them as compared with the PPP, which despite all the negative ads, might not be able to persuade the voters not to put a stamp on the tiger. Yet another research says that attack ads can be effective only in moderation. It just might be the overkill that has killed it for me.

And since I am citing researches, here is another one. Political ads in America have become more negative over the years. By focusing so much on attack ads, the PPP might have just started a trend. And it’s not one that I am excited about.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Maula Jat
    May 8, 2013 - 10:25PM

    Most, if not all negative ads are against the PML-N. The result can be that if you already detest the N-League, you will end up hating it more. If you support it, you will loudly curse PTI and PPP for their meanness. So the question really is that if you are undecided, how would the negative ads affect you. The author appears to be irritated by these ads, but does not admit that her vote will still go the party which appealed to her before the ads. Net result= no appreciable change in voting intentions. Who gains from negative advertising? The advertising firms and the media as they will be laughing all the way to their banks. Frankly, this whole campaign ads business, positive or negative, is like an affliction, but you can get hooked to it. Democracy, yaar!Recommend

  • Mirza
    May 8, 2013 - 10:33PM

    The Op Ed repeatedly emphasizes that the writer is an undecided voter. Yet the thrust of the Op Ed is condemnation of PPP ads and praise of the negative ads by PTI. It is the akin to the biggest news yesterday was the fall of IK while a two dozen political worker death in two bombing incidents made a minor news.
    After the hijacking of elections by TTP for its favorite two rightwing parties from Punjab, the relatively nationalist, secular and liberal parties were reduced to only media campaign. How could one talk positively about the people who are trying to come into power on the shoulders and terror of Taliban? Try making the case of victim parties of terror classy and positive!
    No matter what the urban elites say the roots of the only national party is among the rural heartland of Pakistan where people have always voted for PPP and it is still not over till all the votes are counted and results announced. Like the two rightwing prodigies of TTP even though the campaign is hijacked but the elections are yet to be decided. With the seat adjustment already in progress in Sindh the news of PPP’s demise is highly exaggerated. Hopefully the three coalition parties are going to make more seat adjustments in KPK, Baluchistan and southern Punjab and defeat the TTP and their designs of terror.


  • samir
    May 8, 2013 - 10:35PM

    everyone is against the PMLN trying to ruin its image . PTI AND PPP are allies


  • Roni
    May 8, 2013 - 10:38PM

    The rural heartland of Pakistan is not stupid. They are not in cahoots with TTP and terrorists. They know full well who Zia’s remnant is and who has hanged and killed the elected PM who they loved dearly. They are ready to defeat the ideology of Zia, TTP and its favorite leaders who have a license to roam freely without fear while the victims are still victimized.


  • shah
    May 8, 2013 - 10:40PM



  • Rashid
    May 8, 2013 - 10:40PM

    Though it is unfortunate that we have such high intensity of negative advertisements but it is not true to say that PML-N is using their achievements. I say this because, yes, they may not advertise adds against PPP but the language, cooments and remarks used by both Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Shariff against President Zardari and his party are no less negative adverstisement. If they truely believe in themselves and their acheivements why do they use this tactic?? Even when Zardari isn’t speaking anything being the preseident – a non political position!!


  • Ali Baloch
    May 9, 2013 - 12:16AM

    So PTI and PML-N trolls sling mud at PPP and they don’t even leave Bhutto Sahab it’s all good but God forbid if PPP returns the favor then every one starts crying about how politics has went downhill, how political parties should refrain from throwing stones at each other. Nawaz Shareef and Shehbaz shareef and Hamza Shehbaz have used derogatory remarks against President Zardari and are still doing it but when PPP shows the empty rhetoric of Shehbaz “it’s lost it’s way” and the ECP takes notice. Shareef brothers waste 30 billion on an extremely flawed project and their Govt in Punjab is hailed as a model of good governance. Imran Khan though spent 5 years as a representative of Mianwali and has nothing to show for it. And he is still viewed as an exemplary figure in politics. PML-N, JUI, JI, PTI have all shown support for TTP (Killers of 45000 Pakistanis) and are all called “Patriots” yet PPP which has started Power Projects of about 24000 MW, Initiated a skill training program, Gave jobs to 100,000 People, Started a national health insurance program and funding for the poor, increased the support price of Wheat and in this Govt’s tenure the Stock market rose to 18000 points the economy though not exactly developing is still some what stable when compared with other countries suffering from the global recession. This party must still prove that it has done something. I really feel for the PPP their leader and his entire family died there are open threats to the life of his grandson and yet this family must prove it’s loyalty to this country. No wonder after BB’s death in 2007 PPP workers in Sindh were openly screaming “Pakistan Na Khappay” if only Zardari had the good sense of not saying “Khappay”


  • Hyper Baig
    May 9, 2013 - 1:22AM

    PPP has nothing to show for so all it can do is mud-slinging. PPP you should worked for the people. Shame on you.


  • sattar rind
    May 9, 2013 - 2:04AM

    then what ppp do as the Taliban and their masters not allowing them to go meet public through public gathering.


  • Hasan Hasni
    May 9, 2013 - 4:02AM

    Writer should know parties in west draw attention of people to the manifesto first and don’t hesitate to attack each other even on minor mistakes as other issues are looked after by other competent institutes. Unfortunately our institutions are weak and corrupt. The corrupt politician will remain in politics with the help of corrup institutes; therefore, negative advertisement will continue and prosper unless justice is served fairly for all.


  • Usman
    May 9, 2013 - 4:38AM

    @samir: It wasn’t PTI that was in bed with the PPP government for 5 years. You might think so, but we don’t have a memory of a goldfish.


  • Parhakoo
    May 9, 2013 - 11:10AM

    Frankly, I think the ads are simply great! See the mirror and no i am not a PPP supporter.


  • Nida Ali
    May 9, 2013 - 1:45PM

    The ‘dirty money’ doled out through Secret Funds of Intelligence Bureau (IB) finds its way in the negative advertisements by PPP & its Bteam PTI and character assassination of PML-N’s Leadership!
    Who will take notice of theft of taxpayer’s money OR is everything allowed in hate & war??


  • x
    May 9, 2013 - 6:29PM

    @ali baloch, As a mere representative of mianwali (and one whose party had no seats so u can imagine what importance and funds he was getting by the ruling government), imran khan, according to you, has nothig to show? LOL. yes i agree with usman, we dont have memories of a goldfish. namal uni, shaukat khanum, etc etc. hes done a lot as private citizen too including world cup, hes represented and made pakistan proud. whereas ppp and n league have nothing to show for their rules as majority in governmnt and even as private citizens have disgraced the country and as public rules, ruined it.


  • Citizen Khan
    May 9, 2013 - 8:46PM

    lOiN roared, Imran fell & Bhutto left elections.


    go Nawaz!!


  • May 10, 2013 - 12:14AM

    Firstly, the assertion that negative ads is a new trend in Pakistani Politics is not true. Since 1988, the students of Pakistani Politics have been observing this trend at varying degrees and more than any other party, PPP has been at the receiving end. One can easily search for political ads in the last 6 elections. I wonder why the writer of this OP Ed failed to know these very much established trends despite great resources at her disposal being an editor in this Newspaper. But one can understand that a new generation of journalists and editors tend to grasp political history of Pakistan from early 2000s.
    Secondly, one can easily understand the reason why PPP resorted to this kind of campaign is solely because they have not been given enough air time on electronic media and got negative coverage throughout 5 years of its rule. Now at election hour, they were not allowed to run their campaign in streets while their opponents are enjoying best times of their lives in public meetings.Recommend

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