Kevin Rudd has said repetitively that the old politics of negativity won’t work. He is committed to a new, more positive Australian polity and future. It’s a strange position for an incumbent government to take, particularly as this is the second time Rudd has been in power. It’s contradicted by the fact that 60 per cent per cent of their election ads have involved some sort of attack on Tony Abbott and the Coalition. They’ve even created a whole website devoted to the idea that If Abbott Wins, You Lose.
Abbott, in many ways, has the opposite problem. He has long been king of negative politics, affectionately dubbed Dr. No by commentators. It was through a constant stream of negativity that he was able to destabilise and dismantle two governments – Rudd Mark I , then Gillard. But to actually win an election requires more than negativity. It’s difficult to ask the public to vote for you based on what you are not. Instead, Abbott is trying to position himself as a stable beacon of hope, a real politician with real solutions.
And yet, despite appearances, both parties are committed to negative politics and negative political advertising. After both releasing vague, positive ads about their vision of Australia’s future, the negative ads have begun.
Labor has this one on all the things Australian’s will lose if the Coalition is elected:
And the Liberals have this one on Labor’s carbon-tax lie:
It’s difficult to prove whether negative political ads work. Many, including Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville, argue that negative political ads tend to be more memorable than positive ones. Even if people outwardly dislike negative political ads, they tend to connect with them unconsciously. A 2008 U.S. study found undecided voters were especially influenced by negative ads, even when they outwardly said the ads had no influence on them.
But other studies have shown that negative ads are most effective when shown in moderation. The more ruthlessly a politician hounds their competitor, the less likely the ads are to be effective. If over done, negative campaigning can induce cynicism and apathy rather than action.
So is negative political advertising a good thing? Well, firstly, it isn’t evil in and of itself. Negative tactics have been used to discourage Australians from doing things like smoking and drink-driving with great success. What’s more, if politicians have been spinning lies, or do have negative traits, then the public deserves to hear about it. In this sense, the criticism essential to negative ads can aid transparency.
Interestingly, attack ads tend to be more grounded in fact then positive ones. It’s easy to say you support something, it’s more difficult to prove someone else doesn’t. What’s more, the bigger the claim, the harder you have to work to prove it. A different U.S. study found that, of the political ads analysed, only half contained truths but 80 per cent of those that did were negative. In this election, the positive ads of both major parties offer little substance, resorting to vagaries like a new way or a new hope. By comparison, Labor’s Tony Abbott, He’s Just Too Big a Risk ad is grounded in fact, and the Liberal’s Rudd’s Record literally lists facts, most of them numbers based.
However, negative political ads can also be very far from rational. Instead, they are highly emotive. As part of the survival instinct, our brains are wired to be reactive to threat. Negative ads work by tapping into our unconscious, encouraging us to become fearful and react accordingly. Negative ads tend to use a wide range of emotive techniques, from daunting music, to harsh colouring and bold text, to serious voiceovers.
This can become a problem when the content is deliberately misleading. There are currently no legal requirements for advertising content to be factual in Australia. Because of this, false notions can easily become imbedded in the public consciousness, in part aided by negative political advertising. One might look to the Liberal’s Labor’s Carbon Tax Lie Third Anniversary ad, which states, “only the Liberals will get rid of Labor’s carbon-tax”.
Misleading or manipulative political advertising is of particular concern when the media doesn’t provide a viable alternative. Many have argued that the increasingly commercial nature of the media, coupled with its tendency to whip itself into a 24/7 frenzy over
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polls and personalities, has made it more difficult for citizens to properly inform themselves. In Lindsay Tanner’s book on the media, Sideshow, he wrote, “the corollary of the rise of emotion in political coverage is a decline in the importance of objective truth”.
What’s more, most Australians turn to commercial television for their news, which dedicates very little time to election coverage. In fact, Australian political academic Sally Young found during the 2010 election that if people watched the news on Channel Seven or Nine, then continued watching the following two programs on the same channel, they were likely to view more political advertising than news. Young argues that this is no accident. Commercial stations limit their news coverage so that they can make more money from advertising instead.
If the essence of a political campaign is to provide voters with the clear, transparent information they need to make a rational vote in their own best interests, then political advertising appears problematic. It’s one thing to emotionally manipulate us into buying a can of soft drink, but to vote for a potential prime minister? That feels a tad anti-democratic.