How attack ads really work

reprit, repackage, replaceHave you seen the new attack ads that the Conservative Party of Canada has put out attacking new Liberal leader Stephane Dion? Let me ask that in a different way: have you seen the ads actually during a television commercial break, or did you see them on the evening news?

The content of these ads doesn’t concern me very much, nor does their motivation – both of these are painfully obvious and predictable. But there’s something worth mentioning about the DELIVERY of political attack advertising, and it’s something that a complacent and culpable news media spends little time discussing.

The new commercials – which can be viewed at the Conservative Party website – were the subject of the top story on the Globe and Mail’s website; same with Canoe, the National Post, Canada.com, etc. It’s been a top story on national newscasts and politics shows all weekend, most of them showing at least one of the three commercials in its entirety.

In the public relations field, we call this “earned media,” distinguishing it from paid media in the form of advertising. But there is little here that the Conservative Party has had to do to “earn” this coverage; media outlets are falling over themselves to reprint and rebroadcast the content of these advertisements as if it’s suddenly important that the Conservatives are attacking their opponents.

Welcome to the 21st century reality of negative advertising, where a huge media buy of television spots is not only missing the point, but almost entirely irrelevant. Heck, look at the production values of these cookie-cutter ads, with video footage looking like it was ripped off of YouTube. But who cares? These will only actually air as commercials enough to say that they were produced to be “commercials,” when all along the real target audience is the news media.

It’s the news media who will get these commercials to more pairs of eyes than the most extensive media buy could, either by repeating the ad on television news or by inspiring newshounds like me (and you) to visit the Conservative Party website to check them out. It’s the news media who, in building an entire story out of this, will give Conservative spokespeople extensive media time for their messaging. And yes, while the news media will also give the same opportunity to the Liberals, there will still be a defensive tone to the whole dialogue which is exactly what the Conservatives are going for.

This is not a rant against the Conservatives, for the Liberals have pulled the same stunts before. Nor is it purely a Canadian phenomenon: the race-baiting ads used against Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic candidate for a Tennessee Senate seat in last year’s elections also fit the same formula. The goal is not to actually get the advertisement on the air in between segments of your favourite television shows; the goal is to get the news media to do all that work for you.

Why does the news media cooperate in this whole affair to such an extent? After all, is not the storied role of the media to be society’s Fourth Estate, the watchdog, the whistleblower, the unbiased and independent adversary to government crimes and misdemeanours?

Well…yes and no. That idealistic, adversarial philosophy of media comes in conflict with the symbiotic reality, where the media need the politicians to provide them with information for their stories, while the politicians need the media to print their messaging. A significant side-story in the whole Valerie Plame scandal in the U.S. has been revealing the extent to which any news media depends on sources, on information, on ACCESS, and adopting a combat-bunker mentality threatens that access.

Sometime in the past – most likely during the Reagan era – news outlets decided that the ideal way to find a balance between challenging media manipulation and still getting the information they needed was to cover the manipulation as part of the news story. This is why you regularly see stories about PR flacks, image consultants and speechwriters. This is why after the State of the Union address you get dozens of news stories not only mentioning what the President said, but how he said it. And this is why the media is attracted to a story analyzing the latest Conservative propaganda.

But is that sufficient? Is drawing attention to the fact that the news media is being manipulated enough to counter the effects of that manipulation? Does pointing out that a commercial is manipulative after showing the entire commercial blunt its persuasive effect? When I see more news stories about attack ads than actual attack ads, I have my doubts.

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