Sunday, November 19, 2017
Opinion

Deep in brain, attack ads win

RECOMMENDED READING


In poll after poll, Americans say they don't like negative campaigning. Yet in the final week of the Florida primary, more than 90 percent of the ads broadcast were attack ads. That's not likely to change in the run-up to Super Tuesday.

So why do candidates rely so heavily on a kind of advertising voters say they abhor?

Because it works. To understand why, you have to consider what we know about how emotions work — and the different ways our conscious and unconscious minds and brains process "negativity" during elections.

In 2008, my colleague Joel Weinberger and I tested voters' conscious and unconscious responses to two ads. The first was an anti-Barack Obama ad of Hillary Rodham Clinton's. "It's 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep," it began, "but there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing." It then went on to suggest that Clinton, because of her seasoning in national politics, was far better qualified to answer that phone than the less-experienced Obama.

The second was an anti-John McCain ad put out by the Campaign to Defend America. It was designed to suggest that a vote for McCain was a vote for four more years of George W. Bush policies. The ad juxtaposed the policies promoted by the two men and interchanged their heads, concluding that the Republican nominee was "McSame as Bush."

The voters we surveyed claimed to despise both ads, describing them in focus groups as "pandering." They insisted the ads would backfire with them. But using a well-established method for assessing which words the commercials activated unconsciously, we discovered that although voters consciously disliked both commercials, the ads were nevertheless highly effective. Both "stuck," triggering negative associations with Obama and McCain in the minds of most viewers. When viewing the face of Obama, the words most strongly activated by the "3 a.m." ad were "weak," "lightweight," "terrorist" and "Muslim." The word that stuck unconsciously after the "McSame" ad was "Bush."

Viewers may have rejected the ads consciously, but that doesn't mean they weren't unconsciously affected.

Our conscious reactions reflect our conscious values. In the case of campaigns, for most people, those values include a belief that people should run on their merits and stop tearing each other down. But unconsciously, our brains are highly reactive to threat — especially when, as in the case of an ad, the threat isn't immediately countered or refuted. A well-crafted positive ad can "stick" too, but there's nothing like a sinister portrayal of a greedy, self-centered villain to stir up our unconscious minds.

Every political strategist knows that there are four stories you have to control if you want to win: the story you're telling about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you're telling about your opponent. Newt Gingrich lost Iowa because he was talking only about himself.

The reason it's so crucial for politicians to activate both negative and positive emotions is that they are not, as our intuition would suggest, just opposites. Emotions such as anxiety, fear and disgust involve very different neural circuits than, say, happiness or enthusiasm. A candidate's job is to get all those neural circuits firing, both the ones that draw voters in and the ones that push them away from other candidates.

That doesn't require making things up about your adversaries. You don't have to bend the truth too far to paint a worrisome picture of any of the candidates this year — or to present an image that's positive (at least with some creative air-brushing).

But in hard times with flawed candidates, expect a lot of negative campaign ads between now and November.

Drew Westen is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University.

© 2012 Los Angeles Times

Comments

Editorial: Good for Tampa council member Frank Reddick to appeal for community help to solve Seminole Heights killings

As the sole black member of the Tampa City Council, Frank Reddick was moved Thursday to make a special appeal for help in solving four recent murders in the racially mixed neighborhood of Southeast Seminole Heights. "I’m pleading to my brothers. You ...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

Editorial: It’s time to renew community’s commitment to Tampa Theatre

New attention to downtown Tampa as a place to live, work and play is transforming the area at a dizzying pace. Credit goes to recent projects, both public and private, such as the Tampa River Walk, new residential towers, a University of South Florid...
Published: 11/17/17
Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

Editorial: Rays opening offer on stadium sounds too low

The Rays definitely like Ybor City, and Ybor City seems to like the Rays. So what could possibly come between this match made in baseball stadium heaven? Hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of millions of dollars. Rays owner Stu Sternberg told Times...
Published: 11/16/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

Editorial: Wage hike for contractors’ labor misguided

St. Petersburg City Council members are poised to raise the minimum wage for contractors who do business with the city, a well-intended but misguided ordinance that should be reconsidered. The hourly minimum wage undoubtedly needs to rise — for every...
Published: 11/16/17

Editorial: Make workplaces welcoming, not just free of harassment

A federal trial began last week in the sex discrimination case that a former firefighter lodged against the city of Tampa. Tanja Vidovic describes a locker-room culture at Tampa Fire Rescue that created a two-tier system — one for men, another for wo...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Editorial: Firing a critic of his handling of the sewer crisis is a bad early step in Kriseman’s new term

Barely a week after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman promised to unite the city following a bitter and divisive campaign, his administration has fired an employee who dared to criticize him. It seems Kriseman’s own mantra of "moving St. Pete forwar...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/16/17
Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

Editorial: USF’s billion-dollar moment

The University of South Florida recently surpassed its $1 billion fundraising goal, continuing a current trend of exceeding expectations. At 61 years old — barely middle age among higher education institutions — USF has grown up quickly. It now boast...
Published: 11/14/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

Editorial: Vets should not have to wait years for benefits

American military members hurt in service to their country should not have to wait a lifetime for the benefits they deserve. But that’s a reality of the disability process at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which hasn’t made payi...
Published: 11/14/17

Editorial: Deputies’ rescue reflects best in law enforcement

The bravery two Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies showed a week ago is a credit to them and reflects the professionalism of the office.Deputies Benjamin Thompson and Trent Migues responded at dusk Nov. 11 after 82-year-old Leona Evans of Webster...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/17/17

Another voice: An untrustworthy deal with Russia

President Donald Trump’s latest defense of Russian leader Vladimir Putin included — along with a bow to his denials of meddling in the U.S. election — an appeal to pragmatism. "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,"...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/14/17