Beyond the ethical questions raised by an ad suggesting the prime minister doesn’t believe in sending sex offenders to prison is the matter of whether such negative campaigning even works.

I feel this is a sign that Labour is serious about winning, rather than a sign that they have lost their moral compass.”

This was the assessment of Steve Parker, former head of strategy at M&C Saatchi, the advertising agency most closely associated with Conservative political campaigns in the UK. His comment was in response to Labour’s controversial and personalised attack ad on the prime minister, Rishi Sunak.

The image, tweeted from Labour’s official Twitter account, depicted Rishi Sunak alongside the words: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.” Since then, Labour followed this with another personalised Twitter ad, highlighting how Sunak’s family has benefited from non-dom tax loopholes.

Others disagreed with Parker, arguing that negative advertising, especially of this personal kind, demeans political discourse and alienates the public. It might not actually work, and it might be bad for democracy if it does.

Parker’s comments are a helpful way into the discussion. He has pedigree, after all. Saatchi created some of the most memorable attack ads in recent British history, “Labour isn’t working” (for the 1979 election) and “Labour’s tax bombshell” (1992). Parker also worked on the Conservatives’ 2015 election ads, depicting Labour’s then-leader Ed Miliband literally sitting in the pocket of SNP leading figures Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.

His view captures the predominant wisdom of political consultants around the world that negative advertising can be effective, certainly more so than positive ads. Attack ads are considered more memorable and more credible, and if pitched astutely can tap into voters’ (often latent) doubts and fears about parties and candidates.

Labour’s willingness to go negative can be seen as a sign that it has the stomach for the fight. After all, Sunak was happy to build his brand around his own image, claiming ownership of popular government policies.

He can’t complain, the argument goes, if he is then personally associated with failures. Nor do the Conservatives have any moral high ground given former prime minister Boris Johnson’s personalised attacks on Keir Starmer.

Clever politics or gutter politics?

The vast bulk of research on the effectiveness of political advertising comes from the United States. Much less is available in the UK, where paid TV advertising is banned (hence why this furore has sprung up around a tweet).

The US evidence is mixed. Attack ads, especially those dealing with issues, can motivate voter interest and engagement. But there is also some evidence that they can demobilise voters and lower political trust, especially among voters who don’t have a strong attachment to a particular party.

Some studies suggest backlashes can be expected if attacks are perceived as untruthful or tastelessly aggressive. This is why official campaigns often outsource negative ads to other groups.

In general, however, the consensus is that advertising can have a significant impact. And even if effects are generally small and contingent, it can influence the public agenda and how issues are framed. This is especially the case for negative advertising, given its newsworthiness.

The findings from US research do not easily translate to the UK, where the amount spent on political advertising is massively lower and usually marginal compared to the news management strategies of the main campaigns, even if spending has grown in the digital era.

There has been some evidence from experimental research in the UK that positive news coverage had a higher impact on elections than negative news coverage. However, there is very little research and no clear evidence on the independent impact of advertising.

Full steam ahead

The lack of hard evidence has not stopped and indeed has probably enabled, campaigners’ own narratives of success and failure. In the absence of any definitive means to judge campaign effectiveness, practitioners develop plausible explanations which eventually may become the common wisdom of how elections are won.

In the campaigners’ world, it is negative campaigns that move the needle, influence the news agenda and then hopefully chime with or nudge public opinion. This is evident in the conflicting reports of how Labour insiders have reacted to the attacks on Sunak.

Some claim to be alarmed at the low politics, others are delighted that the media has paid so much attention. A virtually free hit on Twitter has amassed millions of pounds worth of publicity.

It’s also notable that Labour decided to use Twitter as its platform rather than, say, Facebook. This suggests the immediate target audience was precisely the political literati and not the public at large.

This is what hybrid campaigning and agenda-setting look like in the digital age. The main aim was not to directly persuade voters but to gain attention from the media and political influencers and to change the agenda and the tone of the political discussion.

These attacks suggest that Labour might be concerned about the direction polls are taking, with Sunak improving his ratings and the Conservatives reducing a huge Labour lead. Some studies have found that negative ads are more often deployed when the gap between candidates is narrowing.

We should expect more of these ads to come. Labour seems set to take the fight to Rishi Sunak on questions of competence and good government. By a logic of reciprocity that is well-known in politics, the Conservatives are bound to respond. One thing we do know is that attack ads are more likely to be used by candidates who are attacked by opponents.

PMP Magazine


Ana Ines Langer, Senior Lecturer in Political Communication, University of Glasgow.

Margaret Scammell, Visiting Senior Lecturer, Department of Media & Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science.


Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 15 April 2023. | The authors write in a personal capacity.
Cover: Screenshot of the Labour Party Twitter campaign.

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