Why does this type of ad work? Elizabeth Dole got carded by the press for unfairly hyping her opponent as taking money from godless Americans, but it’s only one of thousands of negative ads from both Dems and Repubs attacking their opponents with canards and shaded lies.
We mean, say we were competing with you, and so we told everyone that you ate green boogersnots for breakfast. At the last second would voters look at your name on a ballot and recoil just a bit at the idea that you have dried gobs of nasal mucus in your teeth? Of course not everyone would believe it. But the ads don’t have to be trusted by everyone; if only 10% of the population believes them, that swings the middle of the vote, and we win!
There are three reasons why voters respond to attack ads. One is the basic theory of loss aversion, proven in studies, where people feel much more pain losing $100 than joy in gaining $100. Faced with a choice of avoiding a bad thing or getting a good thing, people respond much more strongly to leap out of way of the bad. Boogersnots? No thanks, I’ll avoid that loss choice.
The second is human survival. We all still recoil from snakes in the grass or giant spiders (um, did we say “we”?), because humans are conditioned by evolution to avoid things that could poison or kill them. Political correctness aside, when you see a person with a big pimple on his face, you want to avoid him — because a few centuries ago blemishes weren’t just acne, they were a sign of the pox. Our slavish affection for beauty is simply genetics longing to produce a healthy survivor. When we meet ugliness or the unknown, we want to move away, because our cave ancestors did, didn’t get infected, and survived.
And the third is memory. Humans transfer information from short to long-term memory during periods of heightened emotion. Think back to the biggest fight you had with your spouse or lover, and you probably can describe the paint on the wall. Attack ads bring up strong feelings, and are thus perfect messaging missiles to sink into your political-wearied brain.
Thousands of generations of conditioning make us respond well to things that are unwell. If it looks horrible, don’t get near. Which is why we now have godless TV ads and will never, ever elect someone said to eat green boogersnots.