Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

Chicago commuters had ringside seats to the latest bout in the fight over global warming. In one corner, it was the global warming opponents (represented by The Heartland Institute). In the other, the global warming advocates. And Heartland’s recent, very public punch, was delivered via this Chicago billboard:


Wow. That’s harsh.

On its Web site, Heartland has compared global warming advocates to “Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.” The billboard simply made it known to the wider audience.

The billboard idea was part of an “experiment” by The Heartland Institute, which is a nonprofit group that seeks “to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” According to Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast:

“This billboard was deliberately provocative, an attempt to turn the tables on the climate alarmists by using their own tactics but with the opposite message. We found it interesting that the ad seemed to evoke reactions more passionate than when leading alarmists compare climate realists to Nazis or declare they are imposing on our children a mass death sentence.”

Looks like schoolyard name calling to me.

Heartland defends its billboard attack, claiming, “We’ve been subjected to the most uncivil name-calling and disparagement you can possibly imagine from climate alarmists.” I’m sure they have been.

But the first one to throw a mainstream punch is at great risk for turning public sympathy toward the opponent. Without the backstory, Heartland just looks like an unprovoked bully. And few people want to side with a bully, making this a real Ad Fail.

In addition, Heartland admits that the “billboard angered and disappointed many of Heartland’s friends and supporters, but we hope they understand what we were trying to do with this experiment.”

Attack ads continue to be used — especially in political campaigns — precisely because they are shown to work at a deep, subconscious level even when viewers say they oppose the use of such tactics.

In an article by Drew Westen in the Los Angeles Times explains why such ads work, especially in political campaigns:

“Our conscious reactions reflect our conscious values. In the case of campaigns, for most people, those values include a belief that people should run on their merits and stop tearing each other down. But unconsciously, our brains are highly reactive to threat — especially when, as in the case of an ad, the threat isn’t immediately countered or refuted. A well-crafted positive ad can ‘stick’ too, but there’s nothing like a sinister portrayal of a greedy, self-centered villain, replete with grainy images and menacing music, to stir up our unconscious minds.”

So attack messaging works. But does that justify its use? If people agree with your message subconsciously but consciously think you are petty, how is that helpful? Both people and organizations have to determine what sort of character they want to be known for. It’s in scuffles like these that our character is exposed, revealing either wisdom-and-love or malice-and-hate. When it comes to character — especially for the believer — the means we use will justify the ends we achieve.

1 Comment

  1. Not surprising… “Heartland Institute losing key staff, funders after Unabomber fiasco”:

    [A]s the latest Heartland climate conference opens in a Chicago hotel on Monday, the thinktank’s claims to reasoned debate lie in shreds and its financial future remains uncertain.

    Heartland’s claims to “stay above the fray” of the climate wars was exploded by a billboard campaign earlier this month comparing climate change believers to the Unabomer Ted Kaczynski, and a document sting last February that revealed a plan to spread doubt among kindergarteners on the existence of climate change.

    Along with the damage to its reputation, Heartland’s financial future is also threatened by an exodus of corporate donors as well as key members of staff.

Comments are now closed for this article.