Why do politicians sling mud? Because it sticks

A kinder, gentler nation turns to bloody politics

Posted Mar 22, 2011

The ground has yet to thaw in most of Canada but the political mudslinging has already begun, with speculation of an imminent spring election. Canadians are normally a restrained and civil lot (at least off the hockey ice) and have historically had weaker stomachs than their southern neighbors for strident and personal attack ads in the political arena. On the whole, the electoral rhetoric has tended to be fairly bland by American standards. But it's a porous border, with Canada recently exporting Justin Bieber and importing a bloodier form of politicking.

In the most recent round of pre-election partisan advertising, the Conservative Party has launched the first strike in portraying Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff as "reckless", "dangerous", and downright un-Canadian to boot. In reference to the fact that Ignatieff was living in Massachusetts and teaching at Harvard before coming back to Canada to run for public office, the Conservative Party ads assert: "He didn't come back for you."

The Liberal Party has retaliated by aiming linguistic projectiles at Prime Minister Stephen Harper that are normally reserved for despots, referring to him as "dictatorial" and to his administration as "the Harper regime."

Cultural norms can act as a powerful brake on tactics like these. For instance, in Japan, it was illegal until quite recently for commercial advertising to draw any explicit comparisons to competitors on grounds that brazenly claiming to be better than someone else was "undignified" and many Japanese today still squirm at such unseemly behavior. Canadians may yet decide that the current crop of political ads is too, well, un-Canadian. But when it comes to negative campaigning, genteel social norms get some pushback from psychological mechanisms that help give dirty politics an edge over keeping it clean.

For one thing, there's some evidence that attitudes that are framed as being in opposition to a candidate are sturdier than attitudes in support of a candidate. In a 2005 study by George Bizer and Richard Petty, subjects read descriptions of political candidates. Participants in one group were then asked to state which candidate they supported, while those in the other group were asked which candidate they opposed. Both groups had read exactly the same information about each candidate. But when people were encouraged to frame their attitudes as oppositional, their opinions became harder to dislodge with later information that put their preferred candidate in a bad light. It was as if a negative attitude towards the other guy had inoculated them against the effects of incriminating information about the candidate they'd liked better at the outset.

It's a finding that does little to discourage pre-emptive strikes. The effect may translate into a tactical advantage for Stephen Harper—this week, his government faces charges of contempt of parliament for failing to provide adequate documentation that would allow for the proper evaluation of his party's new crime legislation.

What's more, the earliness of the Conservative ads, which were launched well before this week's events threatened to provoke an election, may also benefit the Harper government. Negative campaign messages can have a longer half-life than positive messages. Normally, an ad has its greatest punch very soon after it's first seen. But a 1999 study by Ruthann Lariscy and Spencer Tinkham found that this was less true of negative campaign ads, whose persuasive impact actually grew over a period of several weeks, even when the source of the message was perceived as not very credible to begin with. One possible explanation is that when people first see the negative ad, they have a bad taste in their mouths at what they feel are unfair tactics, and this makes them less immediately receptive to the attack on the opponent. But this queasy feeling dissipates fairly quickly while the negative impression that sticks to the opponent is more durable.

All of this leads me to suspect that while Canadians may still express plenty of disgust at all this undignified political discourse, their politics may soon come to look a lot more like their hockey.

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Bizer, G.Y. & Petty, R. E. 2005. How we conceptualize our attitudes matters: the effects of valence framing on the resistance of political attitudes. Political Psychology 26 (4); pp. 553-568.

Lariscy, R. A. W. & Tinkham, S. F. 1999. The sleeper effect and negative political advertising. Journal of Advertising 28 (4); pp. 13-30.

Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved