Negative advertising, no problem?

Warren Buffet’s Geico Insurance started and has set the tone for the recent trend of negative advertising on TV and other advertising medium. The amount of and tenor of negative advertising in the insurance industry, has increased substantially in recent years. Negative advertising apparently works, or the sage investor Warren Buffet would not promote it in his voluminous number of Geico ads, which I mute.


Warren Buffet’s bullying of the other insurance companies with an avalanche of negative advertising apparently has the public and other insurance companies paying attention. Major insurance companies have followed suit with rounds of negative advertising and Geico has become financially successful. Currently presidential campaigns are resplendent with negative advertising and it’s on the increase.

The public is hypocritical of negative political ads. They put up with and respond to negative ads such as Warren Buffet’s company promotes, but they say they don’t like negative political ads.

Negative ads work. We are programmed to respond to make negative advertising work. How many times have you heard the terms, “no problem” or “not bad?” At a store when I thank a clerk or associate who helps me, very often without thinking, the response is, “No problem,” rather than, “you’re welcome” or “glad to help.” According to the weather person the weather is either, “bad,” or “not bad,” never “good” or “great.”

Ruthann Lariscy recently wrote an article for CNN entitled, “Why negative political ads work.” She states,

“Our brains process information both consciously and non-consciously. When we pay attention to a message we are engaged in active message processing. When we are distracted or not paying attention we may nonetheless passively receive information. There is some evidence that negative messages may be more likely than positive ones to passively register. They ‘stick’ for several reasons.

First, one of the most important contributors to their success may be the negative bias. Negative information is more memorable than positive — just think how clearly you remember an insult.

Second, negative ads are more complex than positive ones. A positive message that talks about the sponsoring candidate’s voting record, for example, is simple and straightforward. Every negative ad has at least an implied comparison. If Mitt Romney is “not a true conservative,” then by implication the candidate sponsoring the ad is saying he or she is a true conservative. This complexity can cause us to process the information more slowly and with somewhat more attentiveness.

Negative information, too, travels more slowly because of its enhanced complexity. It benefits from the negativity bias, and inevitably some of that negative information gets ‘stuck’ in our minds, even if we don’t like the ad or agree with its contents.

There is another benefit negative messages achieve that positive messages largely do not. In psychology the principle is called the sleeper effect.

Over time, a message is likely to become disassociated from its sponsor. There is some evidence that negative ads benefit from this effect: Immediately upon hearing and seeing an attack, you might dismiss it as being ‘just politics.’ Then, typically several weeks later when you are making your voting decision, something in your mind recollects the negative information. You have likely forgotten when or where or from whom you heard it — but the negative content ‘stuck.’”

There is an axiom in politics that says, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it”. The origins of this axiom go back about 100 years. The late Russian Marxist revolutionary and communist Vladimir Lenin stated, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” He was followed in his belifs and actions by the late German politician and Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels who stated, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the state to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”

No problem?

• Wynne is a resident of Juneau and is a former Washington state legislator.


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