How to Use Negative Campaigning to your Benefit

Published on August 13, 2018

Negative Campaigning Do's and Dont's

Disclaimer: This article does not endorse negative campaigning in any way. It merely shows how negative campaigning can be used in the right manner.

Negative campaigning arouses a lot of hate or disgust amongst viewers primarily because, well, nobody likes reading or viewing material which is steeped in negativity. Mudslinging by politicians never paints a pretty picture, and when it gets too personal or reaches new low points, we as audiences are majorly put off.

Despite this, there has been no dearth in the negative campaign ads that are seen, usually during peak election season. Why? Simple, because like it or not (and most of us don’t!), negative advertising works! And there are several studies and articles to prove it.

With negative political ads on television, in newspapers, and more recently, on social media, politicians are making use of all the channels available at their fingertips to condemn their opponents. And if it works, why not? The only real issue here is when they resort to outright fabrications, get way too personal, or make embarrassing gaffes at their own expense.

In this article, let’s look at how to use negative ads to your benefit.

How to do Negative Campaigning right

When I was in High School, school captains had to be elected through voting. The nominees were given two weeks to garner support and canvass. Campaigning would usually get intense and competitive; after all, it was pride which was at stake. One year, a friend of mine got nominated and being fiercely competitive, we knew he’d do anything to be “crowned” school captain.

While the others went around begging for votes and talking about how they’d improve things, he smartly did background research on the other candidates and came up with a list of their flaws and past incidents where they’d failed, if any. He then went on a campaigning spree, listing the shortcomings of others; casually mentioning incidents when some of them had fared poorly on exams, or had been in charge of a school event which they hadn’t organized properly, or had been caught missing classes.

He didn’t resort to lying but used legitimate and known examples to pull the others down, and although his victory wasn’t by a big margin, it simply didn’t matter because he won.

If you want negative political ads to work in your favor, there are certain rules that you need to follow, as my friend had smartly realized. Have a look below:

(For convenience’s sake, let’s call my friend Luke)

Be like Luke

Be absolutely sure that your opponent has made mistakes

Just as Luke only targeted those student nominees who had actually failed in the past, and had concrete proof to back up his claim, you should do the same. Make sure that your opponent(s) said or did something which was unsavory, illegal, or had failed at a task and then target that issue. If there is nothing you can unearth, there is nothing you can do about it.

Don’t be anonymous when reporting to the media

After finding solid proof, Luke himself spoke about other’s shortcomings to bolster his effort, without relying on his friends or putting up anonymous posters. Similarly, when you find useful evidence (useful for you, not your opponent!), go to the media yourself. If it’s sent anonymously, there’s a high chance of it being rejected as it would likely be treated as a hoax or plain old spam.

The candidate themself should come out with the charges

Luke didn’t get anyone to endorse his claims, neither friends nor leaders of student bodies. He himself spoke about the charges. Similarly, if you don’t wish to go to the press or the press rejects you for whatever reason, make sure that candidates themselves come out in the open with the accusation. Research has shown that negative advertising by a candidate is more effective than when done by a political action committee (PAC).

Time it well

By starting his negative campaigning in the early stages of the stipulated two weeks that candidates had for canvassing, Luke had plenty of time to get the negative rhetoric settled into the collective student mind. Like Luke, make sure that you come out with your claims well before Election Day; the closer you get to polling day, greater is the chance of your charges looking like lies.

Don’t get too personal or engage in low blows

Luke only spoke about weaknesses which mattered when being a school captain; he didn’t make comments on the appearance of a candidate, or about anything bad about their family. Similarly, focus your negative campaign ad only on your opponent’s misdeeds which could hamper the locality or country. Don’t comment on personal issues, religion or any such negativity which could severely backfire.

Be sure of your reasons for negative advertising

When Luke hit upon the idea of using negative campaigning, his only agenda was to win. Similarly, as a political party or candidate, your reasons for using negative political ads should be clear and should mainly consist of:

  • Either your opponent is outspending you by huge margins, OR
  • Your campaign is relatively unknown or small as compared to others, OR
  • There is serious and concrete proof of misdeeds by your rival which simply cannot be ignored

It is extremely important for you to have verifiable proof before making an allegation. Outright fabrications or negative campaigning for the sake of it should be avoided at all costs. Only when it is absolutely necessary, should you use it as Luke did knowing he didn’t have outright support.

We’ve seen what negative campaigning is and how you can use it for your political campaign. But the obvious question still remains…

Why does Negative Campaigning Work?

While Luke was a competitive individual, he was also perceptive and was excellent at gauging the psyche of his fellow classmates and friends. Despite being at a slight disadvantage (not being as popular as the other nominees), he used negative campaigning because he knew it would work for him. This is what his reasoning was for it, and which you should understand before putting out negative political or campaign ads:

  • People remember negative things more than the positive ones: If someone compliments you, and later the same person says something mean or rude, what are you likelier to remember? The insult, of course. Although the other candidates had plenty of positives, Luke was careful in only pointing out their negative traits or past mistakes; he knew this would stick in people’s minds and win him favor.
  • People forget the sources of negative information after a while: In those two weeks, Luke campaigned several times and made sure to negatively advertise the other candidates several times. The reason being that repetition is key. Even if people don’t believe you at first (although, you should always tell the truth), after a while they end up forgetting the source…but the negativity surrounding the accused remains.
  • Negative Campaigning defines your opponents more than it does yourself: When Luke talked negatively (but truthfully) about the others, he realized he was creating a subtle yet important comparison without openly doing so. When you negatively advertise, you are subtly hinting that you are better than the other person even if you aren’t being overt about it. A negative message about someone without mentioning your characteristics implies that you are better than, or above the flaw that the other is guilty of.

When done in the right and truthful manner, negative campaigning can help your campaign. Hopefully this article helps you in doing so.