Effective Campaign Messages Can Turn the Tables on an Opponent

Negative and misleading ads seem to be the norm in political campaigns these days, but they sometimes backfire, leaving voters feeling like they have to choose between the lesser of two evils instead of voting for a candidate they feel proud of supporting. How do you strike a balance in your political messaging and make sure your message is effective?

Chad Gallagher, a 2006 Toll alum and campaign adviser to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, lead a panel discussion on crafting political messages in a Sunday afternoon session, “As Seen on TV: How to Produce an Effective Political Message” at CSG’s 2010 National conference.

Gallagher, now CEO of Legacy Consulting, said it is important to not only frame your messaging for campaigns, but also to have an effective communication effort for your issues, especially in the current political environment.

By showing a few political ads that were among the least effective and most effective from the recent campaign cycle, panelist Wendy Schiller, an associate professor at Brown University and former staffer for U.S. Sen, Daniel Moynihan, illustrated how a good ad could even help a dark horse cross the finish line first.

In an ad for Alabama Gov.-elect Bob Bentley, the candidate declared he wouldn’t take a salary until the state was once again at full employment. Schiller said this was a good example of knowing your message and knowing your audience.

“If you see what happened with Gov.-elect Bentley is he understood the number one issues was jobs, the economy, and he absolutely keyed into that,” said Schiller. “He understood his audience and spoke their language.”

Another dark horse, Lt. Gov.-elect Mark Darr of Arkansas, was outspent three to one and was not expected to win.

“He used his one chance on money with commercials to have a face-to-face sit down with the voters and talked about jobs,” Schiller said. “… If you only have money to go on TV once, sit down and look the voters in the eye face-to-face and let them see you.”

Schiller said what worked in the ad was the close-up framing of the message.

“If you have a positive conversation and close up, that means really good reaction from the viewers, but with negative conversation they close off immediately,” Schiller said. “If there’s conflict it’s not always bad, but if there is close-up conflict, it’s bad and it reflects poorly on both people in the advertisement.”

Do negative ads ever work?

“If you’re going to be brutal, be brilliant, be sharp and make everything true,” Schiller said.

Just make sure your candidate isn’t the one spewing the bad news, she said. You could end up tarnishing the good guy image of your candidate.

Visual components of the ads could sometimes be as important as the message. Schiller said you should avoid somber visuals because they tend to be a complete turn off.

 “You can have scary images, but don’t make the whole thing scary – you’ve got to have some positive images to balance the ad,” she said.