There is a reason that political campaigns run negative advertising–it works.
This close to a national election you’ve probably seen plenty of negative television commercials. Here in Indiana, where Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Ind) is seeking re-election in a state that President Trump won handily, we’re inundated with these commercials. One spot tells us that Senator Donnelly supports abolishing ICE, dissolving national boundaries, and amnesty for all. The next spot shows Senator Donnelly cozying up to President Trump, supporting a mile thick border wall, and heavily vetting anyone entering the country. The portrait of Donnelly painted by each of these commercials couldn’t be farther apart from each other. Obviously one of them isn’t telling the truth.
But why run the negative attack ads?
Even though we consistently hear voters are opposed to the negative advertising, it still works. We’re natural skeptics. Once a little nugget of information is put in our head, it stays there. We associate those negative thoughts with the person or product it was directed toward. The same concept works for phone banks, mailings, and bumper stickers — people claim they don’t like them, but empirical evidence shows they work.
Take the 2004 election for example. President Bush was painted as a dunce that barely graduated from Yale. While John Kerry was characterized as a flip flop that change his positions with the changing winds. Whether we admit it or not, those negative campaigns impacted how we viewed each individual.
But we can see examples of negative campaigning working in agriculture too.
The constant barrage of attacks on modern agriculture prop up certain narratives. We use too many hormones. We spray too many pesticides. We mess too much with DNA. We’re destroying the environment. We’re polluting the water. We’re creating toxic products. The negative campaigns work by planting little nuggets of doubt into consumers’ minds. So when they think “modern agriculture” they start to associate it with “bad.” The age of social media has made it even easier to spread this narrative.
And just like Senator Donnelly’s policy positions on immigration, it doesn’t even matter if the information is false.
The negative campaigns should remind us that the people and organizations spreading these messages are fairly sophisticated. It isn’t just luck that allowed them to figure out how to create a smear campaign, share with the masses, and make it resonate. It isn’t by accident. They have experience and money. They know what they’re doing.
That’s one reason I think it is important to call out negative messaging and offer the other side of the story. It might seem like it’s falling on deaf ears, but the acquiescence by silence is even louder. We have to provide the alternative narrative, even if we don’t have the resources of the other side.
And maybe, just like Senator Donnelly is expected to do, we can ultimately be successful despite the bomb throwing.