- - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Imagine General Motors trying to sell you a Chevy truck by airing an ad featuring a Ford F-150 pickup truck bursting into flames, killing a family of four and ending with anguished relatives waiting for news of their loved ones in a hospital emergency room.

Would such a commercial inspire you to buy a Chevrolet instead?

This kind of depressing, fear-driven, scorched-earth, negative advertising has dominated political advertising for the past 20 years. In 2012, the top three GOP outside groups spent $299,449,218 on negative advertising, nearly 15 times what they spent on ads that actually promoted Republicans, and the Democrats were busily doing the same thing.

My concern as a Republican has been that this sort of advertising relies on fear and demonization of our opponents to win elections instead of inspiring Americans to vote for Republicans. It may work once in a while, but not nearly as often as its proponents believe. It is one of the reasons the public has become so cynical about politics and politicians. Negative campaigns have never worked well for products, so why would they work for candidates?

They don’t, which is one of the reasons why Congress has an 11 percent approval rating.

But contrast an imaginary advertisement attacking its competition with the actual advertising campaign Chevy used from 1992-04 featuring Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” as a shining pickup slowly rolled atop a canyon ridge amidst blue Colorado skies. The truck was described as “the most dependable, longest lasting truck on the road,” and sales skyrocketed.

By associating its product with a classic American rock musician famed for blue-collar themes, GM appealed to its base, connected with viewers and sold a lot of trucks.

What the Republican Party needs in 2016 is the political version of that Chevy campaign — a national, cohesive branding campaign promoting the best of what the GOP has to offer — conservatism.

How do we know this?

Last year, 70 percent of Republicans told Gallup pollsters they “identify with the conservative moniker,” and Rasmussen found 41 percent of all Americans are fiscally conservative while only 14 percent are fiscally liberal. This year, Gallup found that 38 percent of Americans are conservative while only 24 percent are liberal and 34 percent are moderate. The heartbeat of America is conservative.

Positive conservative messages worked in three major gubernatorial campaigns in 2014. Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas and Larry Hogan in Maryland ran positive, focused, issue-oriented campaign against negative opponents. They won, as did Paul LePage in Maine who, like Mr. Hutchinson and Mr. Hogan, eschewed attack ads in favor of stressing issues and optimism.

Maine provided an acid test for the positive approach. Mr. LePage began his re-election campaign in terrible shape. No one believed he would be re-elected; he was written off as a vulgar, hard-boiled misfit disliked not just by Democrats, but by many Republicans and the media as well.

The conventional strategy dictated a full assault on his Democratic challenger based on the idea that to win re-election, Mr. LePage would have to convince voters that bad as voters considered him, his opponent was worse. But instead, Mr. LePage decided on a branding refresh in which he came across as the man he was — an authentic Mainer. The message remained clear, upbeat and honest for months, resulting in a decisive victory.

Affirming messages are the foundation of consumer advertising because they appeal to the positive nature of the human psyche. That same formula will work in the political world. To accomplish this, Republicans have to go to the heart of what conservatives feel. Conservatives pride themselves on being steady leaders who are trustworthy and self-reliant. “Doing what’s right when no one is watching” could be the new moniker of the conservative philosophy.

“We trust you to make the right decision.”

“We want you to come with us.”

“Together, we can lead.”

These messages let voters know that Republicans believe the voter is mature enough to do the right thing. Trusting the electorate to make the right decision is at the core of conservatism and what distinguishes it from liberalism.

Just as Chevy should promote Chevy, Republicans should promote conservatism. Consistent, long-term negative advertising demoralizes and exhausts viewers, ultimately killing trust in the brand. That’s why Republicans should adopt the strategy that has proven so successful for retailers.

It worked for Chevy, and it will work for them.

Damien Harvey is the president of Agentia Creative.

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