Political attack ads during elections similar to those being produced
by both the DA and EFF are psychological devices that powerfully shape
political behaviour and drive public discourse.
The basis of the common voter in
South Africa is loyalty. Attack ads can break through party affiliations
and loyalty, and also sway independent or undecided voters.
Joel Weinberger, PhD, a psychology professor at Adelphi University,
in New York in the United States of America comments the following with
regards to attack ads during political campaigning: “I wish candidates
should not use them, but attack ads work perfectly.” So that is the
reason why political parties spent fortunes on attack ads: they work.
Some people like those running the public broadcaster of South Africa
consider attack ads as offensive and therefore must be removed or
rejected from broadcasting line-up.
Ted Brader, PhD, in his book Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work, writes:
“People regard fear ads as the worst kind of negative advertisement.
That is a misconception. Fear is useful in political discourse. It can
help direct the public’s attention to important issues. It prompts
people to seek more information and rethink their course of action. It
unlocks the grip that habit holds over people’s decisions.”
In one research study, published in the American Journal of Political Science,
Brader and his colleagues found that campaign attack ads caused people
to seek more information and remember more facts from a newscast aired
afterward more than positive ads. In other words they make people to
“Fear ads heighten attentiveness and weaken people’s reliance on partisan habits”
On the other hand ads that sparked feelings of enthusiasm in viewers,
telling upbeat good stories — reduces viewers’ interest in learning
more about candidates’ positions, the Brader research discovered.
Given all this I must say that the EFF ad that has been withdrawn and
now under contestation is the most nerve wrecking and astonishing
political attack ad! The heart of the ad is women crying as images of
police brutality are displayed shooting at their husbands. And then
immediately in the background shockingly appears Julius Malema in a
black and white live photo just like the rest of the ad is black and
white. Psychological studies have discovered that black-and-white video
images are ten times more likely to signal an appeal to fear than colour
Julius Malema’s body language in the ad appears to be appealing for
help in the midst of police violence and mayhem but his deep low pitched
blurry voice is asking people to vote for EFF. Casey Klofstad, a
professor of political science at the University of Miami says: An
existing body of research shows that low voice pitch in men and women
signals things like social dominance and strength.
The whole ad is a clever and supremely powerful psychological deep
technique that has proven to work as it opens skulls, disgorged brains
and penetrate the heart.
Washington State University political science professor Travis Ridout, PhD, once wrote in Political Psychology magazine.
“If you’re behind, you need to shake things up, and that means making
people anxious about the other candidate so they will reconsider their
On the other hand psychologists and political strategists affirm that
positive ads are used when the political party is ahead and leading.
That is the reason you see ANC ads and its overall campaign is positive
with a feel good story: it is because they are the leading pack.
“If you’re ahead and want to cement peoples’ support, appeal to the
emotions of pride and enthusiasm.” reflects Professor Travis Ridout.
Ruthann Weaver Lariscy, who is a professor in the department of
advertising and public relations in the Grady College at the University
of Georgia in the US, says: “Unfortunately, negative political ads work.
And unless you live in a cave, you are likely not immune to their
Political advertising is part of democracy. The public broadcaster of
South Africa has a character of the simplistic, devoid of capacity to
deal with robust hard hitting engagement, and very often is leaving
Aggravating as some of these ads may be it is still not right for the
public broadcaster to refuse them. The market place of ideas that will
allow ideas of progress to prevail has their heated participation as
one of its imperatives. Maturing has left me with the humility that
everyone contributes something of value and must be carefully listened