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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Thinking About Strategies to Combat the Coming “Slime Attack” Ads

The recent announcement of a coordinated $350 million election-year effort by independent liberal and progressive groups — including MoveOn, the AFL-CIO, Change To Win, Women’ Voices, Women Vote, the National Council of La Raza, Acorn and Rock the Vote — is profoundly impressive. Together with the Democratic candidates’ tremendous success in direct small-donor fundraising this year it raises the hope that Dems might actually come close to matching or surpassing the Republicans in overall funding.
Lurking in the background, however, is the ominous fact that pro-Republican independent groups – led by Freedom Watch which by itself already has a $250 million war chest — will still probably far outspend pro-Democratic independent groups. As Freedom Watch’s treasurer bluntly told one reporter recently, in 2008, “money won’t be an object”. Moreover, because the large liberal-progressive organizations are generally more oriented toward grass-roots and GOTV organizing than big-money advertising campaigns, it is probable that in the specific area of TV and radio advertising by independent committees the pro-Republican advantage will be even greater. This is particularly disturbing because independent committee money – free from the need for the candidate to directly endorse its message – is the best tool for the most dishonest and scurrilous type of attack ads.
Behind the myriad minor variations, the basic strategy of the “slime attack” or “character assassination” category of advertising is usually to dishonestly associate a Democrat with some kind of deeply negative stereotype or schema that is already strongly embedded in the voter’s mind. Barack Obama provides a particularly rich target in this respect. Because of his unconventional personal history and background, it is almost trivially easy for a skilled ad designer to slyly imply that he is (or once was) anything from a “secret Muslim” to a “Black militant”, a “60’s radical”, an “inner city crack user”, an “ivy- league liberal snob” or a “corrupt Chicago pol”. (The comparable attack on Hillary Clinton would focus on activating negative schemas involving liberals and professional women – the “anti-family women’s libber,” the “snotty, rich do-gooder”, the “affluent limousine liberal”, and the “bitch”, “witch”, or “man-hater.”)
These subtle forms of character assassination work best when they are not consciously analyzed by the audience but absorbed in the background. This takes advantage of the unconscious assumption many people now make that while all political ads are untrustworthy, they are also all roughly equal in their degree of mendacity (e.g. “all those political ads are crap”, “It’s all just a bunch of B.S.”). This unfortunately common mental short-cut enhances the credibility of attacks that are based on slander and innuendo and diminishes the credibility of those that are more factually based.
There are two standard Democratic responses to attacks of this kind – (1) directly defending against the specific accusation or (2) making a comparably slashing counter-attack. Both have major drawbacks.
On the one hand, political strategists universally dislike simple responses to attacks because continually “playing defense” is considered ultimately a losing strategy. On the other hand, liberals are handicapped in playing tit-for tat with conservatives because of their generally less ruthless political outlook (it is hard, for example, to imagine any of the leading liberal independent committees producing material suggesting that a Republican fathered an illegitimate Black child–as pro-Bush operatives suggested about McCain at one point in 2000–or presenting patently phony “witnesses” to dishonestly discredit a soldiers medals, as the swift-boaters did to John Kerry in 2004).
However, in trying to match the provocative, infuriating and attention-getting effect of conservative “slime attacks” without resorting to outright lies and dishonest innuendo, liberal independent committees often find themselves making attacks that come across as exaggerated, strident or shrill to undecided voters. The “General betray-us” New York Times ad, for example, was popular with highly partisan anti-war Democrats because of its’ bitter, “in-your-face” expression of anger and disrespect, but it had a zero or negative persuasive effect on other voters.
There is an alternative strategy Democrats can consider, however – one based on research conducted during the 1950’s on how people can best be taught to resist “brainwashing” techniques like those used on GI’s in the Korean War. Two important findings were the “inoculation” effect (that prior, controlled exposure to propaganda significantly reduces its effectiveness) and the “ulterior motive” or “hidden agenda” effect (that awareness of a message source’s manipulative intent reduces its persuasiveness) On the surface both notions seem so self-evident as to be trivial, but the demonstration that they were empirically measurable phenomena made it possible for communication specialists to argue that it could sometimes be worthwhile to allocate scarce advertising dollars to messages that employed them.
The possible strategy that flows from this research is simple – allocate some part of the pro-Democratic ad budget to directly and explicitly attacking the “independent” conservative committees like Freedom Watch and their commercials.


This attack should aim to achieve two goals:
The first should be to vividly point out and expose the manipulative techniques being employed. One can easily imagine a rather effective ad campaign featuring a group of ad execs sitting around a table with an initially innocuous picture of Obama or Hillary. “Darken the shadows”, says one, “Make the face look more evasive”. >“Make the background music more ominous”, says another “like something bad is going to happen”. Experimental studies have shown that an ads’ effect is substantially reduced when it is explicitly presented to the audience as an effort in persuasion. In fact this strategy could be used to directly deconstruct individual pro-Republican ads and expose the precise elements of “brainwashing” they contain. The underlying message should be that “Americans are fair-minded people – they want to listen to both sides and make up their own minds. They don’t like being brainwashed or manipulated. It’s time for this “Manchurian Candidate” kind of advertising to stop”.
The second is to explicitly challenge the profoundly undemocratic character of massive ad campaigns paid for by secret clubs of rich people (Freedom Watch, for example, is organized legally in a way designed to hide the identities of its donors). Ads paid for by voluntary contributions of small donors (as MoveOn’s ads are, for example) or by grass-roots, dues-supported mass membership organizations (like the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, or union political action funds) have a legitimate role in a democracy. On the other hand, as MoveOn’s head Wes Boyd recently said, Freedom Watch is doing “attack ads by Republican Beltway operatives, financed by billionaires, at the request of the White House”.
Right now most voters do not consciously distinguish between ads funded by small donors or large membership organizations on the one hand and those funded by secretive “rich men’s clubs” on the other. It should be possible, however, to dramatize the difference and why it matters.
(It is worth noting one potential objection to this approach — that it will inevitably provoke reciprocal conservative attacks on the legitimacy of ads by liberal independent committees and also stimulate ugly personal attacks on major liberal funders like George Soros. These are legitimate concerns but given the likely Republican financial advantage in independent committee TV and radio ad spending, however, generally challenging this kind of advertising should benefit the Democrats more than their opponents. Conservatives also already demonize liberal funders like George Soros to such an appalling extent that little worse is possible. Moreover, Freedom Watch itself is actually quite vulnerable in this regard. The organizations’ leading funder, multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson, owns a vast international gambling casino empire that stretches from Las Vegas to Singapore (“values voters,” take notice!). He’s rabidly anti-union and anti-workers rights (heads up, rust-belt union voters!). He has close personal links to the Likud Party in Israel, and is a prime mover in a very “hush-hush” campaign to build support for military action against Iran. He actively injects all of these personal agendas into Freedom Watch. He is, to put it simply, not a figure an organization like Freedom Watch will want to see attracting too much public and media scrutiny.
If a strategy of the above kind is judged potentially useful, it is important to begin the effort early. On the one hand the early ads will alert and sensitize the media to the issue and hopefully generate a broader discussion. Moreover, it is possible that discrediting early Freedom Watch ads could have a kind of multiplier effect if the persuasive effect of subsequent ads is diminished as well. Both these factors argue that this kind of campaign could be more then typically cost-effective.
(To take a quick example, if all professionally produced political ads are assumed to usually be about equally effective–a plausible initial assumption–then a $15 million progressive ad campaign will simply cancel out an equal $15 million of conservative ad spending. On the other hand, if spending that same $15 million on a campaign aimed directly at undermining the persuasiveness of Freedom Watch’s commercials succeeds in reducing the overall effectiveness of its $250 million war chest by just 10 percent, this will represent a $25 million persuasive effect.)
Given the importance of allocating painfully scarce progressive and Democratic ad dollars in the best possible way, some focus group and small scale pre-testing must be done to make sure that the potential benefits of this approach will be sufficient to justify the diversion of resources. But such testing needs to start as quickly as possible because, for maximum effect, the attack on pro-Republican independent committees should begin as soon as they begin running their first ad campaigns.
James Vega is a strategic marketing consultant whose clients include non-profit organizations and high-tech firms.

3 comments on “Thinking About Strategies to Combat the Coming “Slime Attack” Ads

  1. Keith Roberts on

    Excellent point; I would contribute to a grass-roots internet group raising $ for such ads. Although the funders of these independent committees are secret, we all know what their interests really are. It should be possible to raise that supposition in counterattack ads, as in “Just who is funding this ‘Committee for Freedom?’ Do we hear Wall Street money ka-chinging? Are gun manufacturers shooting off their mouths? Do we smell a corporate polluter or two? Why are they hiding?” And in the background, to ominous music, fat and ugly guys in suspenders and bow ties smoking big cigars.

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  2. Jon on

    Excellent thinking, and a particularly nice analysis of the leverage from attacking Freedom Watch’s credibility.
    An approach that could make things even more effective is to try to get discussion in the press and media about a couple of aspects of political advertising manipulation in general: appeals to fear, and unsourced statements. This is complementary to the “hidden agenda”, it’s more a “how they do it”. This analysis would have to be bipartisan, and so Democrats and their allies performing the same techniques would be targets as well … but, at least in my opinion, that’s a good thing.
    PS: on the “expose the methods” front, the “3 a.m. girl” pro-Obama ad had a nice clip at the beginning showing the darkening of the tone on stock footage to make it scarier, so others are thinking that way as well.

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  3. xenomera on

    I very much like this idea. I think it is a really good way for independent progressive advertising sources, such as MoveOn, to attempt to counter the right wing slime machine. By consistently reminding people of the source of these ads, which will prove to be enormously unpopular figures, some of the power of those ads should be lessened.
    For example, an ad which showed some outrageous quotes by the funders of those ads (which should not be hard to come by), or some dramatic representation of the vileness of the businesses in which they made their money (pollution or sweatshop images are usually pretty good) could help turn the issue toward those shadowy funders. This has the added secondary effect of perhaps making funders a little more hesitant to become funders if it is known that you will be publicly attacked.
    I think the recent California initiatives on treaties with Indian tribes for expanding gambling shows some of the promise of this approach. Many of the ads put forward by the Indian tribes were focused on highlighting the funding sources for the opposition to those treaties, which were overwhelmingly Nevada casinos and California horse-racing tracks. Whenever I discussed these initiatives with people, I noticed that this disclosure of funding sources was the strongest argument in favor of the treaties.

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