Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Right on the heels of the study that examined the physiological responses to negative political advertising a few days ago is a pretty good article in Newsweek on the primacy of fear as a motivating emotion in human (animal?) decision-making.

One of the more interesting implications of the article is that the standard scare-the-shit-out-of-the -voter-with-blood-and-guts campaign ad (think Tancredo) does not work as well as something that merely insinuates the possibility of imminent doom. In other words, fear-mongering campaign ads essentially work under the Hitchcockian rules of suspense which state that the unseen is more frightening than the seen.

This is also an age old advertising technique that Madison Avenue has used for ever: great commercials don't say what they want to say outright, they merely led the viewer to the obvious conclusion. This actually provides the viewer with a small sense of intellectual accomplishment at having figured the meaning of the ad by themselves -- when an advertisement compliments a consumer, it's pandering; but when a commercial gets the viewer to flatter himself, that's another story all together.

The article mentions the "Wolves" ad made by the Bush-Cheney campaign during the 2004 election, which is clearly a knock-off of the "Bear in the Woods" spot run by Reagan in 1984. The Bear ad worked because it was an obvious metaphor that anyone living in America at the time would have understood (self-flattery) that was intended to remind the viewer of the looming threat of Soviet nuclear strikes (fear). There's a subtlety to the Reagan and Bush spots that makes the graphic nature of Tancredo's recent presidential ads look comical and insulting -- even to the most rabid of immigration opponents.

Last, but not least, is the balancing of the fear element with one of hope. If the campaign was built around Bears in Woods it would eventually depress the bejesus out everyone. It didn't because the theme of the Reagan campaign was Morning in America, which made the Gipper's presidency look more like a coffee commercial than a Faulknerian novella.

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