A few weeks ago, Barack Obama’s campaign announced a new website, Fight the Smears, ostensibly to provide quick facts when negative rumors or allegations about Obama crop up. Many believe that a factor in John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush was that he failed to counter negative “swift boat” allegations about his combat record quickly enough. I’ll leave the question of whether Fight the Smears is neutral and factual as opposed to partisan spin to the political pundits. Rather, I’d like to focus on the neuromarketing aspects of this effort: could Fight the Smears end up promoting the very allegations it is trying to quash?
This idea is far from outrageous. In Damage Control That Causes More Damage, I wrote about research conducted by the CDC that showed repeating a false claim in order to discredit it actually caused more people to believe that it was true. At the time, my advice was,
In general, it’s better to avoid repeating a false rumor or scurrilous attack in order to deny it. While at times this may be unavoidable, in many cases the best approach to damage control may be to emphasize the positive. Instead of repeating a rumor that your noise-cancelling headphones cause brain cancer, emphasize their safety and the extensive testing that confirms that. Avoid interview situations that could result in the rumor being repeated and requiring a denial. Never run an ad that says, “You may have heard a rumor that our headphones cause brain cancer. This is false.”
The Obama campaign obviously didn’t buy that approach. Looking at the site’s home page (which annoyingly is redirected to an entirely different URL on a subdomain of barackobama.com), we see this as the headline:
SMEAR: Michelle Obama Says “Whitey” On a Tape
LIE: Rush Limbaugh says a tape exists of Michelle Obama using the word “whitey” from the pulpit of Trinity United
LIE: Blogger Larry Johnson writes “New and dramatic developments. This is a heads up. I’ll post the news Monday morning by 0900 hours.”
LIE: Proven GOP sleazemeister Roger Stone says he has “credible evidence that some indelible record exists” of a tape of Michelle Obama using the term “whitey.”
LIE: Blogger: “Tape was filmed between June 26th – July 1st 2004 in Chicago, IL at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition Conference at Trinity United Church: specifically the Women’s Event.”
This is followed by the statement, “TRUTH: No Such Tape Exists.” Ignoring this wimpy denial, which seems to leave open the possibility that Michelle Obama DID use the racial slur but wasn’t caught on tape doing it, this approach to rumor quelling seems dead wrong. Not only is the headline the presumably false allegation, but then four different supporting statements or rephrasings of the allegation follow it. Yes, these statements are labeled as smears and lies, but they have the effect of bolstering each other.
I don’t like this approach. I’ll admit that both candidates and companies have a difficult task in countering rumors and allegations. Not refuting them in a visible way is dangerous – they can gain more currency if left to spread unchecked. On the other hand, publicly refuting allegations can help them reach a bigger audience. And, as noted above, repeating the allegation to refute it may make it more memorable and believable even as you discredit it.
My advice remains the same. If you must counter a serious rumor, lead not with the false claim but with the truth. Provide details to support the truth. It may be necessary to repeat the rumor or allegation in some manner, but if possible do this in a less detailed and memorable way. Don’t do what Fight the Smears does and appear to build a supporting case for the rumor.
Fighting rumors and allegations is truly a difficult balancing act, and it’s one area where commercial marketers and public relations firms don’t envy their political colleagues. Few companies will see even a tiny fraction of the attacks that one major political campaign will.
One viral marketing feature on the Smears site caught my eye. Like many sites, there’s a “spam your friends” feature that lets you forward a page to one or more email addresses. The Smears site carries this one step further by offering to upload the contents of your address book for a really serious mail blast.
Overall, I don’t think Fight the Smears will have much effect one way or the other. As I noted a couple of years ago in The Neuroscience of Political Marketing, research shows that most of us filter political information through a screen of our existing beliefs – we accept information that agrees with them, and reject what doesn’t.