Any analysis of new trends in negative advertising must start with the basics. Three rules govern negative or, more precisely, comparative advertising.
- The statement of fact about your opponent must be accurate.
- The allegation must be a fair representation of the factual occurrences.
- The allegation must be about the public record of your opponent.
If you are thinking about deviating from these general principles, you should think long and hard. The more you deviate, the more you expose yourself and your client to counter attacks.
It's also important to challenge an ill-conceived general rule that has gained widespread acceptance since the Dukakis for President campaign. That so-called rule is that you must answer every attack.
That's wrong. If a negative ad isn't doing your client any damage, then it is a waste of your resources to answer it. Second, if the ad attacking your client has no "good" answer, then a weak response on your part that does not fully refute the charges will only help confirm that your client is guilty of the allegation. More importantly, a bad response spot that does not fully defuse the charge may only contribute to the momentum of the allegation made by your opponent.
This brings us to the issue of a recent anonymous mailing sent out to residents of State Rep Rita Allison's district, which alleged she may have traded sexual favors for a cushy state job. While it's not clear if Allison's constituents took the letter seriously, it seems to have been taken quite seriously by state GOP leaders, who filed a lawsuit against the still-unknown perpetrators of the mailing.
You can read a copy of the filing, including a copy of the two-page letter, here.
From this corner of the blogosphere, this move seemed to be a rather bad idea, for several reasons:
- This approach ensured the mailing and its allegations got a statewide audience, generating far more publicity than the mailers could afford, or were willing to pay for.
- Celebrities who portrayed falsely in tabloids choose not to sue, usually because such trials allow the defendants to conduct fishing expeditions from the stand. Likewise, if Allison has any past issues that would reflect poorly upon her, being put under oath and requiring her to answer questions in a courtroom may be exactly what her opponents want.
- Legal actions consume thousands upon thousands of dollars, while this mailing was rather cheaply produced. Political parties have often engaged in "tar baby" tactics, where small sums invested in attacks against well-supported incumbents result in costly responses which waste dollars which would be better spent much closer to election day.
- An essential rule of negative campaigning is that if it's over the top, it's ineffective. If Allison is well-known in her district, then a single ranting letter won't do much to shift their perceptions of her. If she's not, or people already hold negative perceptions of her, then she's got problems that lawyers can't fix.
The only thing that can be effective is to not let such tactics goad politicos into launching wasteful or counter-productive responses, and to consider that sometimes, the best course of action is to ignore such low-dollar attacks and avoid giving them the public forum which they are so desperately seeking.