Why Attack Ads? Because They Work.

By Jared Wesley on Sep 28, 2008

A reporter from our university newspaper once asked me, "Why do parties run attack ads?  Don't they just turn people off?"  A friend offered a similar comment in reaction to the Conservatives' latest round of 'Weak Dion' ads:  "I wasn't voting Conservative before I saw them," he said.  "Now, I'm really not voting for them.  Why would they run these ads?"  My response:  Because they work.... but not in the way most people think.

It's true: the Tories have plateaued at 37 to 40 percent of the popular vote -- just short of the magic number (40%) required to win a majority in (most) Canadian elections.  Many would point to these numbers and say: the negative ads aren't working.   They'd be looking at the wrong numbers, though.  Scan lower down the list.

In recent weeks, Nanos and others have shown that, while the Tories have not improved their share of the popular vote, they are extending (or at least, maintaining) their lead on the opposition.  The reason: Voters are fleeing the Liberals in favor of the NDP (and, to a lesser extent, the Greens). 

Back to the point:  The Conservatives' anti-Dion ads, like most attack spots, are seldom intended to draw supporters toward the party that airs them.  (At least, that's not their primary intention.)  Instead, these attack ads are meant to (1) shore up the sponsors' base, and (2) draw supporters away from the party under attack.  

In two-party systems like the United States, these ads are designed to make the attackee's supporters think twice before voting for their preferred candidate; instead, the attacker hopes those people will either stay home or, in a blind sense of civic duty, actually cast a ballot for the attacker. 

In a multi-party system like Canada's, however, the incentives to run attack ads are actually higher, particularly for parties in the Tories' position.  In this case, driving a leading opponent's supporters to another party is just as effective (and much easier) than luring those same voters into one's own camp.  From this perspective, Harper's ads are not like honey -- they're stirring up the beehive, persuading Liberals to desert Dion in favor of Layton.  Dividing the left is just as productive (and more easily achieved) than collecting more votes.  And it could help turn 37% of the popular vote into a majority government. 

Of course, some attack ads may 'cross the line' and generate sympathy for the attackee or admonition for the attacker.  (Kim Campbell's anti-Chretien ads in 1993, or Martin's infamous 'goose step' internet ads in 2004, come to mind.)  The Tories must be wary of this.  But at this point, the strategy appears to be working.

Case in point:  my friend.  My response to his concerns:  Stephen Harper likely didn't want your vote anyway.  He knew you weren't likely to give it to him, and he knew -- regardless of how much more you would grow to dislike him because of the ads -- you still only have one vote.  My friend is considering staying home in protest.  Point to Harper.

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Great Blog

I just wanted to drop a comment to say this was a very interesting read, I think this a subject of interest to all voters.

I always get upset when

I always get upset when people criticize mudslinging and attack ads. Campaigners aren't stupid, they know what they're doing and they're doing it deliberately. In my opinion, being a voter in a high school, I believe negative ads are beneficial in that they generate interest. Youth become engaged because of the sheer entertainment. Not surprisingly, people like myself when watching a negative ad browse the web and read over the issues and confirm the negative claims. Thanks for the posting.

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