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opinion

Clive Veroni is a marketing strategist and the author of Spin: How Politics Has the Power to Turn Marketing on Its Head

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Even as opinion polls continue to show the Conservatives struggling to hoist themselves past 30 per cent support among voters and a re-energized NDP bouncing comfortably above that mark, the Tories continue to aim their negative ads at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Meanwhile, the New Democrats have joined the fray with their own attack ad accusing the Conservatives of harbouring fraudsters and criminals in their midst.

However, the latest Tory effort against Mr. Trudeau and his stance on terrorism, which uses real footage of real people about to be executed by Islamic State fighters, manages a remarkable feat. The online ad slithers to a new low in political advertising: Using terrorizing images to advance a party's political ambitions must surely be a first.

Every time a new negative advertisement is launched it engenders the same anxious hand-wringing among commentators who fret that these ads are a product of a cynical modern age, that they are devastatingly effective, and that they turn people off, thus reducing voter turnout and undermining the democratic process. None of this is true.

Let's put to rest these myths about negative political ads.

First, that negative ads are a modern phenomenon. Many experts date the beginning of negative political ads to the famous "Daisy Girl" television commercial that ran during the Lyndon Johnson-Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964. Juxtaposing a young girl picking daisies against the horror of a nuclear explosion, it was meant to highlight the dangers of Mr. Goldwater's pro-nuclear stance. Though sensational, it wasn't the first attack ad.

Slanderous political ads are part of U.S. electoral history. During the 1828 presidential campaign, for example, opponents of General Andrew Jackson distributed posters, dubbed the "coffin handbills," decorated with a row of six coffins. They accused Gen. Jackson of summarily executing six militiamen for desertion.

Political attacks go much further back in time. Archeologists examining the ash-covered walls of Pompeii found ads defaming political candidates. And although direct criticism of candidates was frowned upon by the ancient Greeks, fake endorsements were the rage. Thus, slogans proclaiming that petty thieves or drunkards were endorsing one candidate or another were not uncommon.

It's easy to ascribe the ills of our political climate to the cynicism of our times and the advent of new media. But it would be historically inaccurate.

The second myth is that politicians use negative ads because they work. The fact is, what determines whether an ad works isn't whether it is negative or positive in tone, but rather how well it connects with voters on a rational and emotional level.

Sometimes negative ads misfire badly, as happened with the Conservatives' disastrous 1993 ad, which appeared to be caricaturing Jean Chrétien's speech impediment. Ever the scrappy fighter, the Liberal leader came out swinging. In a one-two punch he managed to win voter sympathy and ridicule the Tories at the same time, saying: "They tried to make fun of the way I look. God gave me a physical defect and I've accepted that since I'm a kid. It's true I speak on one side of my mouth. I'm not a Tory, I don't speak on both sides of my mouth."

The trouble with slinging mud is that sometimes it can bounce back and hit you in the face. That's why negative ads are often delivered by proxies, the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth – who lobbed their explosive accusations at John Kerry during the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign – being a prime example.

That's why the Tories' terrorist-themed ad against Mr. Trudeau seems out of step for the normally slick Conservatives. By launching the ad under its own banner, the party turned the spotlight inward, rather than on its opponent. This ad may turn out to be a prime example of how not all negative ads work.

The third myth is that negative ads reduce voter turnout by turning people off. The argument behind this myth is that the more negative political messages people are exposed to, the more likely they are to declare a pox on all parties and simply sit out the election. This line of reasoning feels right, but it doesn't stand up to the facts.

The number of negative ads to which voters are exposed has grown dramatically in recent years. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, run by Wesleyan University and the Center For Responsive Politics, the number of negative ads in the past four U.S. presidential elections has more than doubled. In 2000, less than 30 per cent of campaign ads were negative; by 2012 that number had jumped to more than 60 per cent. Overall ad spending has also seen a massive surge, meaning that the total number of negative messages to which Americans are exposed has ballooned dramatically.

But during that same period, U.S. voter turnout increased to 55 per cent from 50 per cent. Could it be that negative ads get people riled up enough so that they are, in fact, more likely to vote? A meta analysis of research on this subject, published in the Journal of Politics in 2007, concluded that "the research literature provides no general support for the hypothesis that negative political campaigning depresses voter turnout." More significantly, the report goes on to say, "If anything, negative campaigning more frequently appears to have a slight mobilizing effect." In other words, the more negative the ads are, the angrier people become, and the more likely they are to vote.

Election season is just getting under way in Canada, and already two parties have come out swinging with negative messages. No doubt there will be plenty more. But as we see these messages in print, on air and online, let's remember that there's nothing new in this approach, and that not all of the attack ads will work. Rather than being a bad thing, negative ads might be just what we need to motivate us to get out and vote on Oct. 19.