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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Shopping for Truth: Mudslinging

Published: November 14, 2008
Section: Opinions

It dates back to our earliest years. We did it when we were in kindergarten. We moved on to bigger and meaner techniques once we reached high school. But bring in the big bad adults and all bets are off.

What in the world am I talking about? Mudslinging, to put it simply.

It’s human nature to pit one person against another in competition and to boost yourself up by knocking someone else down, right? Surely we all saw it in high school politics and if not in real life, in the movie Mean Girls, for those of you who’ve seen it.

I remember when I was little that I LOVED the Backstreet Boys. But of course, my older sister just had to intervene and inform me that *NSYNC was the better boy band. And so ensued an ongoing rivalry between the two of us, involving juvenile insults—after all, we were only kids— about the other’s musical preferences. The point behind this is that none of us, no matter how old or young, is immune to competition and the negativity which often accompanies it.

A little competition is healthy and makes us strive to do better, but do we ever really stop to think about what happens when we surpass the healthy phase and go into just plain mean? We see mudslinging in many aspects of life: in schools, in business, in culture, and most recently in the presidential election. And was it ever present there!

So now the election is over. Whatever comes from this moment on, putting our personal political preferences aside, we can all at least be thankful for a break from all the mudslinging, right? Personally, I was getting just a bit sick of listening to each candidate tell why his opponent was going to ruin the free world, and I was a bit disgusted by all the ‘dirt’ each was uncovering about the other.

In fact, perusing both presidential candidate’s websites the other day, I couldn’t help but be discouraged by the amount of negativity the sites included. Of course, to win or to be more popular is the point of an election or a competition of any sort, so a bit of negativity is expected. But the level to which we take it is where the line must be drawn.

It’s used in team sports, too. Everyone who lives in or has the remotest knowledge of Boston sports knows that the New York Yankees are our enemies and the Red Sox our hometown heroes. The simplification and sheer competition is all in fun really.

Or is it? Surely there are good intentions, but some take even the simplest of competitions way too far. Insulting or digging dirt up on an opponent or rival doesn’t make you look better; it just makes you look petty and insecure.

A new ad campaign by Boston’s reining coffee king Dunkin Donuts aims to ensure its place as better than the oh-so-evil Starbucks and in so doing, joins the ranks of several other companies using negative ad techniques to bolster their popularity. Through statistics from a nationwide blind taste test, Dunkin Donuts now can claim that it is in fact the preferred brand.

The campaign’s website itself plays into this idea of knocking down your opponent to prop up yourself. Deemed, the site is dedicated to just why Dunkin’s is better than their enemy.

Now as a Boston native myself, surely I’ve grown up with a sense of hometown pride and preference for Dunkin Donuts, but come on, isn’t this title a bit immature? Doesn’t it make you think of little kids screaming “I’m better than you are, na na na na na na”?

Advertisers call this technique “comparative advertising,” using the euphemism to downplay the underlying negative slant of the ads. According to a New York Times article the other day, even though this euphemism seeks to downplay the underlying negative slant of the ads, “the intent is the same as in politics: build yourself up by tearing your rival down.”

Of course, these types of ads do run the risk of alienating the buyers, as political ads may turn off voters. So the real question is: Do negative ads do more harm than good?

Obviously retail companies need to present their image as better than the competition or else how would they stay afloat and how would consumers decide what brand of brand of toothpaste or soup to buy? Oh the horror! Seriously though, nobody is denying that there’s a need to make known your product is worth of purchase. But stooping to the level of insulting your opponent doesn’t speak positively to your product; it only makes you look desperate.

Maybe we could all take a page out of the Burn book of negative advertising—literally—and learn how not to act. Who among us can honestly say that we’ve never said “well I’m smarter, prettier, [fill in the blank] than them”? Does saying so really make you better than them though? What if you really are prettier or smarter? So what! Because like Cady in “Mean Girls” says “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.”