Oswald Letter

Politics, negative ads, and losing trust

Politics, negative ads, and businessI’m always intrigued with presidential politics. Specifically, I like to watch how politicians — often with track records in a governor’s mansion, Congress, or even the White House — go about getting elected or re-elected. Maybe it’s the marketer in me, but I’m fascinated by the way the candidates position themselves to win an election.

Take a look at the 2012 presidential race between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The race has already taken on a very negative tone. A recent study by Wesleyan University showed that 70% of the ads run for this election have been negative. That compares with just more than 9% at the same point in the 2008 presidential election. By my math, that means ads are more than 7 times more likely to be negative this go-around!

As most Americans will tell you, they’re tired of the negative ads. But the people who run the campaigns will tell you that they work. If you don’t believe them, ask John Kerry or Michael Dukakis — both victims of negative ads that worked. So why do these ads continue to work even though the electorate will tell you they’ve grown weary of them?

I’ll tell you why. As a marketer, you’re taught that three things sell — sex, greed and fear. The negative ads play on the third of these three, and boy does fear sell. The people who run the ads on behalf of both President Obama and Mitt Romney know this very well and they’re laying it on thick. Obama will tell you things might not be great right now, but they’ll be much worse if you choose Romney. Romney will tell you that if you think things are bad now, give Obama four more years and see how much worse it will get. They’re peddling fear as fast as they can and it works.

Here’s what amazes me. Both candidates have long track records that can be examined. You can see what Obama has done in the last four years in the White House and evaluate his decisions against what you’d expect from your president. You can even look at his time in Congress if you want more data. And with Romney, you can see what he did as governor of Massachusetts. And if you want more, take a look at what he did when he ran Bain Capital. There’s plenty to see about how both candidates operate.

But we, as voters, don’t do that. Instead, we watch the ads and make a decision. We hear the very worst of each candidate’s history and rely on that to make our decision. We allow the spin doctors who create these ads to influence our decision making instead of taking the time to study the issues, the candidates, and their track records. Shame on us!

Think about this as a manager. You get up in front of your people and make a bunch of promises. Some of them you kept and others you didn’t.  But instead of claiming the ones you kept and admitting to those you didn’t, you ignore the promises you made and make new ones. How long would it take before you’d lose credibility with your people? How long before no one would trust you?

You start to see why no one trusts our politicians. But if we won’t accept it in the people who lead our companies, why do we accept it in the people who lead our country? Why do we as Americans continue to fall for the negative ads? Why do we allow the candidates to use fear to manipulate us into voting for them?

Unfortunately, I believe it’s because we’re too lazy to really spend the time to understand the issues. That, coupled with the fact that we all feel too far removed from the process. As employees, we know that we will be directly affected by the people who lead our companies and, therefore, we pay close attention. We need to do the same when it comes to electing our country’s leaders.