Monday, June 11, 2012

The Solution to Negative Political Ads

Why doesn't Pepsi run ads that call Coke executives fascist pedophiles?  Why doesn't McDonalds suggest that Burger King is for un-American monarchists?  You might say that these have nothing to do with the product, but this is advertising.  Advertising isn't about the product.  If all they cared about was a good product they'd make a good product and let Consumer Reports tell you about it.  Advertising is about selling mental states: horniness for cars, satiation and fun for fast food, and of course the fear for politics.

Advertising doesn't go negative because sales are not exclusive.  I can buy coke and pepsi and a dozen generic store brands.  Even more importantly, I'm always buying something (not literally), so the key is to get me to buy their product rather than the other one.  Merely bashing the other product may spoil the entire thing.  Or make them look like total assholes.  Besides, it's not as if there are any major problems if I buy the wrong cola.  I drink a few less-than-satisfactory cans and next time I go to the store I buy something else.

The ability to buy multiple products means that the competition is different.  I can buy anything and everything, so by that sense, even if I buy coke, pepsi is fine as long as I also buy pepsi.  What matters is that I buy their product: it doesn't matter if I also buy another.  Contrast this with elections, where if I vote for Romney, I cannot vote for Obama, and the reverse.

In addition to this, the goal is different.  Pepsi wants a lot of sales.  So does Coke.  They even share many interests, such as cheap sugar supplies and high demand for colas, and if these happen, they can both benefit.  It isn't a winner-take-all system.  Elections are winner-take-all.  Obama wins or Romney wins.  They don't win by absolute vote numbers, but by relative votes, specifically: more than the other guy.

Let's imagine I'm a candidate.  If I want to have more votes than someone else and voting is exclusive, what should I do?  Getting more votes has two parts: me getting votes and him not getting votes.  To work on the second part, a negative ad may help.  Portray the other guy as a fascist pedophile monarchist and some people who would vote for him won't.  In effect, preventing a vote for my opponent is as useful as getting a vote for myself.  Conveniently, negative adds also help with the first aspect, of getting votes.  If I create more undecided voters, or even voters who don't like the other guy, then those are more voters which I can potentially get.  It doesn't sound as nice, but if I can get people to vote for me just to keep the other guy away, that's a vote for me.

Negative ads make perfect sense in a winner-take-all system with exclusive votes.  Unless we move to a parliamentary system, the winner-take-all aspect is going to remain, and frankly I prefer that we can at least pretend to have "formed a government" even if a over-represented minority effectively nullifies the process.

However there is some ability to improve: allow multiple votes on a ballot.  This means that even if I am an Obama supporter, I could mark Romney as a way to indicate that I think he still has some decent ideas (note that this is purely hypothetical).  Or even better, I could mark a third-party candidate.  This would remove the spoiler concept and make alternatives possible, since I don't need to go tot he ballot thinking about electability, only about whether I think someone would make a good leader.

Under this system, I'm going to care more about getting people to the polls and voting for me.  Maybe they'll vote for Obama too.  But if I can boost my tally, that adds political capital.

Unfortunately I might have this completely backward.  It could be that once voters can pick multiple candidates, then it becomes even more important to trash the opponent, and not just to independent or dissenting voters.  A vote for me and my rival is as good as no vote at all in terms of a majority, so I need to be sure that he doesn't get a vote.

Maybe politics is doomed to be negative.