Crossroads Decries "Negative Political Ads" In Negative Political Ad Attacking Sen. Reid

October 21, 2010 5:49 pm ET — Alan Pyke

There's something odd about the latest Crossroads GPS attack on Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). The ad pretends to be a positive spot, complete with a squealing-brakes sound effect and a rhetorical "Are you tired of all these negative political ads?" Of course, Crossroads GPS is an anonymous money mill, and there's no sense in "wasting" undisclosed funds on a positive spot. So the ad quickly pivots back to the same old misinformation about Democratic policies. It's a rare beast: a negative attack ad that decries negative attack ads.

Advertising executive Tom Denari wrote this week in Advertising Age that "despite the public's often-stated distaste for negative political ads, these tactics have become the norm for competitive campaigning." According to Denari, the reason is that stories need villains, and political campaigns need compelling stories to win votes — and therefore, they need villains. Enter the attack ad.

Denari also notes the backfire effect that a poorly-sourced or unconvincing negative ad can have on the candidate it's trying to aid:

If people perceive a negative characterization to be fraudulent or fabricated, it can often backfire and actually reflect poorly on the accuser. Part of the reason that people are drawn to stories of villains being vanquished is that they are also attracted to fairness.

Denari's missing one piece of the puzzle when he talks about blowback, and it ties back to the strange Nevada ad from Crossroads. One of the hidden benefits (to conservative candidates) of the hundreds of millions pouring into their races from right-wing interests is deniability.

Campaigns can spend their money and energy on positive ads and voter mobilization in the field, while letting these mostly-anonymous funders do the dirty work. They get a stream of negative ads to define their opponents — they get to tell a good story, in Denari's language — and they get a layer of insulation from any blowback from false attack ads getting pulled from the airwaves.