“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 There were a few positive ads about the Benazir Income Support Programme but as the election draws near, they have been replaced by either attack ads or ads that try to cash in the emotional capital that the party thinks it still has.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.