One of the most repeated “truths” in politics is that a winning campaign is a campaign that responds quickly to attacks. But electronic delivery now allows campaigns to respond faster than ever before with poorly thought-out responses that will actually lose a campaign.
Given the new reality of Super PACs and outside negative advertising, response media has become an even more critical skill when it comes to winning elections. Responding decisively and well isn’t easy, but it can be the difference between winning and losing. Thanks to the deluge of negative advertising this year, we found the art of the response became even more critical.
So we’ve crafted the lessons of 2012 into eight rules for creating effective response media:
Rule #1: Respond to the true message of the attack. Make sure that you’re responding to the actual underlying message of the attack and not to the literal message of the attack itself. A response that limits itself solely to the literal attack will only reinforce your opponent’s attack and will not meet the real threat.
In the race for New Hampshire governor, an outside Super PAC launched a negative TV ad attacking our candidate, Maggie Hassan, for not paying property taxes on the home she and her family live in. The real message of the attack was an attempt to define Hassan as a tax-and-spend liberal elitist who plays by a different set of rules—someone who would raise taxes on you because it didn’t matter to her.
Rule #2: As in Judo, use the momentum of the attack itself to throw the opponent. One of our first rules in creating a response ad is to begin the response ad with the first opening seconds of the opponent’s attack ad. The reason is simple but often overlooked: you don’t want the audience to forget the ad you’re responding to. You want to destroy their ad by actually making it work against the opponent and for your candidate.
Campaigns want to respond to every detail. Instead, find the one key vulnerability in an attack and focus there, and the house of cards will fall. Our response ad was very simple and straightforward. In truth, the Hassan family couldn’t pay property tax on their home because they didn’t own the home. It was owned by the school where Maggie Hassan’s husband served as principal, and they were required to live in it on campus. We caught the opponent in a lie, and we used that to discount the entirety of their ad.
Rule #3: Whenever possible make the message of the response about values that are personal and that strike a responsive chord. First, we called out the fact that the opponents were attacking Maggie Hassan’s family. A family’s home is a deeply personal value, and the fact that their ad made a false attack on Hassan’s family resonated instantly and powerfully with voters.
Rule #4: Pivot quickly to positive or to a counterattack. In this case, since the real message of the attack was that Hassan would raise taxes, we pivoted to the positive fact that she had signed “The Pledge” that all recent New Hampshire governors—Republican and Democrat—had signed to veto any broad-based statewide income or sales tax. We actually used their attack as a means to repeat this important message in the unique context of responding to a false attack, which made it all the more powerful.
Rule # 5: A good response ad can make the opponent’s ads actually work for you. Within days of launching the instant response, Hassan related stories of voters approaching her saying that they were now voting for her (and against her opponent) because the opponent had made false and personal attacks and that because of it they were less apt to believe any of the attack ads Super PACS were deploying against her.
With a single decisive response, we had made the deluge of attacks against Hassan actually work for her and against the opponent. She won the race that had been see-sawing back and forth by an even larger margin than the experts thought possible and will soon become the only Democratic woman governor in the nation.
Our opponent’s attack ad:
Our response ad:
Rule #6: When an opponent’s attack contains something that isn’t true, call it for what it is—a lie. In polling, focus groups and dial tests, voters were much more willing to turn against an attack ad if one could show that it contained something that simply wasn’t true—a lie. But it’s important in your response to call it a lie in a calm, matter-of-fact tone and back it up with sources. In the statewide Proposal 3 initiative campaign in Michigan, our opponents were attacking our ads with a spot that claimed utility ratepayers in Illinois were saving millions of dollars with a plan similar to what they were proposing for Michigan.
This simply wasn’t true. The study cited hadn’t said that ratepayers were saving millions, and we found a Chicago newspaper headline that said utility rates were actually going to soar in Illinois.
Rule #7: Respond quickly and decisively to an attack. Don’t assume if it isn’t true that it won’t work. Let’s call this one the Swift Boat lesson. In the new age of online campaigning, an opponent’s website can be a response ad’s best friend.
Interestingly, the opponents actually posted their attack ad on their website a day before they launched it on TV, making our job even easier to take their ad and quickly turn it against them. We wrote and produced a response ad within a day and had it on the air. Again, our response started with the beginning of our opponent’s ad but placed on screen the simple words “outright lies” for a full eight seconds.
Our voiceover asked the question, “Why are the backers of Proposal 3 resorting to outright lies?” Our tracking polling had shown us that their ad was stalling our momentum. The response turned those numbers around within days. We began the campaign trailing our opponents by 31 points, but on Election Day we won 63 percent to 37 percent.
Our opponent’s ad:
Our response ad:
Rule #8: Use response to redefine an opponent and a campaign. Response media shouldn’t only be looked at in terms of responding to attacks; it’s also a tool to take control of the dynamic of a campaign, when the timing is right, to turn an opponent’s strength into a weakness.
In Steve Grossman’s race for Massachusetts state treasurer, voters believed the most important quality of a state treasurer is to be a “watchdog” for the taxpayers’ money. Our opponent went up with an ad declaring herself watchdog and even had a Doberman Pinscher sitting next to her; the dog barked on cue. She was gaining quickly in the polls.
In our response ad, we used the image of a Doberman while telling the story of how our opponent misused her office to benefit her donors and her friends. The spot ended with a little white Pomeranian playfully jumping through a field of grass. Suddenly the “watchdog” wasn’t such a watchdog after all. Grossman won by a landslide.
Our opponent’s ad:
Our response ad:
Today, as we face the new reality of the onslaught of negative attack ads by outside groups, and Super PACs that are spending millions to defeat your candidate, using response media effectively is more critical than ever to achieving victory.
Joe Slade White is the president of Joe Slade White & Company and a veteran of over 400 successful campaigns from the presidential level on down. Ben Nuckels serves as vice president of Joe Slade White & Company.