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Managing Partner Gregor McQuattie shares what brands can learn from political attack advertising

The following four-week period is likely to see more attack advertising than we have witnessed at any time over the past five years, fueled, of course, by the upcoming election. As the Conservative’s early attack on Labour’s tax policy and Labour’s controversial and disingenuous press ad in the Financial Times (where it purported to have the support of business leaders) last week, the “end to Punch and Judy politics” remains just an empty sound bite. While it’s the politician’s bluster and hot air that will dominate the airwaves and social media, brands too have been embarking on a little negative campaigning of their own. Samsung has been given a taste of its own medicine with a smartphone protection plan company, SquareTrade, alleging that Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 Edge phone is as bendable as Apple’s iPhone 6. This, of course, followed Samsung famous tweet mocking Apple after the release of the iPhone6 with its famous “Curved. Not bent” tweet, which prompted a whole anti-Apple #bendgate social media phenomenon and was also seized by HTC and LG. Samsung has, of course, denied the claims but it does seem to show the danger of a brand re-actively mocking a competitor when it can’t be sure that it won’t face the same criticism, and is therefore one of the risks of embarking on an attack advertising strategy. Supermarkets have traditionally (and increasingly) been the sector that is most likely to engage in negative tit for tat advertising. Given how intensely competitive this market is then perhaps it’s no great surprise – given the current opinion poll predictions the parallels between their fight for market share and the political parties slim margins seem clear enough. Nonetheless years of research have shown that attack advertising generally does little to engage the consumer. So why do they focus on negative campaigning rather than positive messaging? And why don’t the parties do more to accentuate the positive and reveal how they intend to improve people’s lives? While it’s obviously easier for one political party to attack a rival’s policy rather than articulate and therefore commit to its own promises, it also makes it harder for the party under attack to defend itself – instantly, they appear to be on the back foot, on the defensive and therefore maybe on the run. Equally, just as many retailers admit to engaging in knocking tactics in order to motivate their staff rather than attract new customers, it is possible political parties are doing the same to engage their grassroots supporters and activists. However while attack advertising is not without its risks, there is a definite place for it provided it has been well thought-out and planned instead of just being a reaction to a certain event. Indeed some even manage to catch the zeitgeist: for example our simple and humorous tweet for Nokia that was timed to go out at the exact moment Apple was announcing that it was producing phones in a range of vibrant colours (something that Nokia had been doing for some time) became the most retweeted brand tweet ever. While political parties dominate attack advertising at the moment, social media has opened up a path for brands to be witty and do the same. But they should be careful to do it in a considered way – something that the politicians would do well to heed.