Why negative ads didn't pay off for Ricketts

Friday, November 17, 2006

Pete Ricketts would have been better off keeping most of the $12 million of his own wealth he poured into his unsuccessfully Senate campaign, according to a panel of political and media experts.

About half of the 55 television ads Ricketts ran were attacks on Sen. Ben Nelson, according to Nelson's camp.

And, as Nelson's campaign contended throughout the race, the more negative ads Ricketts ran, the worse his polling numbers became.

Ricketts lost by about a 30 percent margin.

The Republican candidate and his advisors knew that there was one reason to run negative ads: they work.

That just didn't prove to be true in this case.

The problem was that Ricketts was a relative unknown in Nebraska, and the first exposure most of us had to him was negative -- the Jib-jab type cartoon ads and radio jingles, the less than flattering photographs of his opponent backed by ominous music.

Unfortunately, Ricketts' lead pushed the entire campaign in the wrong direction, turning it into the most expensive Senate race in Nebraska history.

The panel of experts speaking at the University of Nebraska-Omaha on Thursday pointed out that negative ads work only if people know you and like you first.

And, panelists were probably right that Ricketts could have gained more votes by staking out positions on issues like taxes, spending and immigration -- the recent Nebraska Rural Poll indicated that is an important topic in the 3rd District.

But negative ads don't win votes, as research indicates. At best, they cause supporters of your opponent to lose enthusiasm, sometimes enough to stay away from the polls.

The problem was, Ricketts wasn't well enough known to have a base of supporters in the first place, leaving him even more vulnerable than Nelson to the impact of negative advertising.

Nebraska's a small state. There are a lot of easier, cheaper and more effective ways of gaining name recognition than throwing millions of dollars worth of television advertising at the voters.

Just ask some of the other political leaders around the state.

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