Attacking opponents is the norm in political campaign ads, but is it right for businesses and brands to launch attack ads as part of an integrated marketing plan?

With social media reputation playing such an important role in word-of-mouth marketing these days, negative ads can do more harm than good. Romney and Santorum might not have to tread so carefully, but businesses and brands definitely do.

Here are some compelling business lessons you can learn from negative political campaign ads.

Using Attack Advertising Effectively

Negative political campaign ads have been around for a very long time. In fact, John Adams’ successful marketing campaign in 1796 painted Thomas Jefferson as a gambler and adulterer with a drinking problem.

As the contenders for the 2012 Republican candidate for President battle it out, negative political campaign ads are everywhere. It’s gotten so bad that two Republican frontrunners, Romney and Gingrich, argued the subject during a televised debate.

Attack ads aren’t going anywhere, particularly not in politics where they so effectively trigger viewers’ negative emotions of fear, anxiety, and anger. When it comes to political ad campaigns, those negative emotions drive people to the polls in greater numbers than positive, civil ads.

For businesses and brands, attack ads can be effective when used strategically. There are several forms of competitive defenses and offenses that you need to learn before you can understand how attack ads fit into a broader marketing strategy.

Position defense: The market leader introduces a range of products to defend its position. This could also include expanding into new categories or into new geographic areas.

Pre-emptive defense: Rather than waiting for a competitor to attack, the business strikes first by launching a new product, ad campaign, or other marketing initiative to thwart the competitor’s efforts. This type of defense requires excellent market and competitive intelligence and data gathering.

Counter-offensive defense: When a challenger attacks, the business strikes back with an even stronger effort, which could include a better product (or a product that’s effectively marketed to skew consumer perception toward it being a better product), a powerful ad campaign, new promotions, and so on.

Frontal attack offense: A business launches a marketing initiative that attacks the competitor’s weaknesses head on. There is no doubt which competitor the business is attacking and why.

Flanking attack offense: A business identifies a competitor’s weakness and attacks by going around the competitor. For example, instead of directly attacking through a negative ad, the business markets itself not in direct contrast to its competitor but rather as a distinctly different alternative.

Guerrilla attack offense: Rather than attacking directly or indirectly in a full-scale war, a business can chip away piece-by-piece. The business’ efforts appear to be so small and insignificant that competitors don’t feel those efforts are a threat. Therefore, those efforts are ignored and the business has a chance to slowly steal market share.

Think about some negative political campaign ads you’ve seen recently. Which type of defense or offensive attack are those ads examples of? It’s not hard to figure it out once you know what you’re looking for.

Maintaining a Positive Online Reputation

Companies and brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Wendy’s, Burger King, and more have all used attack advertising effectively. However, times have changed since the famous “Where’s the beef?” ads. This particular ad effectively used a frontal attack offensive strategy to make people aware of the larger and better hamburgers customers could get at Wendy’s, as compared to the McDonald’s Big Mac and the Burger King Whopper.

Although an attack advertising campaign can be very effective, businesses have to be careful not to launch attack ads that could require damage control on the social web later on.

For attack advertising to work for brands, the messages in those ads must be true, transparent, civil, and easily verifiable. Consumers are less naive than they were just a few years ago. It takes a few seconds to conduct a web search and learn if messages in ads are accurate or not. While people still accept negative political campaign ads as a necessary evil, they’re not as willing to accept the same level of truth-stretching in brand advertising.

By monitoring their social media reputations, businesses can protect their brands against disparaging comments, clear up misinformation and nudge conversations in the right direction.

[Source: PR Week; Image credits:, Jolka Igolka, El Gran Dee]