There is an old maxim: never talk about the other guy, just focus on yourself. As a recipe for relationships, it is dubious; as a strategy for communications, it looks ever more sound following a recent analysis by Niam Yaraghi at the Brookings Institution of negative ads.

At the end of last year, Obamacare was launched and Americans had until March 2015 to enrol for the 2015 year (“Obamacare” is the name that the media have coined for the Affordable Care Act — President Obama’s legislation to make healthcare insurance more affordable and, eventually, mandatory in the USA).

The US government and several states launched campaigns to persuade lower-income people to sign up. The forces opposed to Federal involvement in healthcare launched their own ads (you can see one below — an Uncle Sam figure performing an internal exam on a woman). The anti forces spent about 20 times as much as the governments did. Yaraghi asked whether all of this spending had had any effect.

uncle sam


To Yaraghi’s amazement he found, “after controlling for other state characteristics such as low per capita income population and average insurance premiums, I observe a positive association between the anti-ACA spending and ACA enrollment.” In other words, the more the anti forces spent on negative ads trashing Obamacare, the more likely citizens were to sign up for the plan

You can hear a great (five minute) interview with Yaraghi (from WNYC’s On the Media) here

There are two theories about why this happened: the simplest is that the negative ads simply raised awareness of Obamacare. The second is that citizens saw the resource poured into negative advertising and assumed that Obamacare would be repealed soon so they had better sign up while they could.

Either way it is a sober warning for any of us thinking about attack campaigns. (The exception to this rule is when you are the underdog: because it will boost your awareness and credibility, you want to goad the market leader into attacking you. We have lots of data showing that underdogs almost always do well from this, however outrageous the comment that finally does succeed in goading the market leader to respond)