What if negative ads meant bad news for democracy?

NB: As announced here yesterday, this post was my début op-ed as a LinkedIn Thought Leader. You can follow me on LinkedIn here.

In advertising and communications, big-budget clients make us happy. Aside from giving us generous paychecks, investing more money in communications can yield positive results in brand awareness and sales. By this logic, the same should be true when it comes to financing political campaigns. For many political operatives, donors, and lobbyists, the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United was seen as a boon: finally, there was a very direct way to add to a campaign’s war chest.

Some true believers went so far as to claim that giving First Amendment rights to moral persons would improve democracy, as NY Post Columnist Jacob Sullum stated: “Super PACs have made races less predictable and more interesting.” This was borne out in the Republican primaries, where dark horse candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich gained considerable ground thanks to support from donors Foster Freiss and Sheldon Adelson, respectively. In Congressional elections alone, outside spending went from $1.8 million in 2006 to $15.9 million in 2010.

Today, less than 2 months away from the elections, the effects of unlimited campaign money is most obvious in the surge of negative attack ads put on largely by the Super PACs.  These ads run the gamut from the absurd (see: “Mitt Romney Killed My Wife”) to the pandering (see Romney’s “Dear Daughter”) to the truth-stretching (“Welfare Reform”) to the flat-out bizarre (hello, “Romney Girl”). As in every election cycle, there is much hand wringing about the effects of mudslinging, but very rarely do candidates tone down their ads.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZbDQnhO128[/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fLtA-VDx4A[/youtube]

As a comparison, in my native France, political advertising is highly regulated—negative communication is not allowed, television spots are verboten, and a campaign’s budget is subject to a strict fiscal ceiling.  As a communications professional, I think that it is a shame that our candidates cannot place ads on television, as this is a prime space to speak to the electorate and to encourage suffrage. However, I do think it is wise that not only is spending curtailed, but also that negative advertising is not allowed.

Are negative ads effective? Common wisdom and a few studies tell us they are, influencing in subtle ways those elusive undecided voters.  Besides, common wisdom continues, who can forget what the controversial “Willie Horton” ad did to Michael Dukakis or the chilling effect that LBJ’s “Daisy” spot had on Barry Goldwater’s campaign?

But what happens when all we see is caricature, personal denigration, and exaggeration of policy positions? People don’t know what to think anymore. One need only look at the voter turnout rates in US Presidential elections to see that a sizable percentage of the population feels alienated by the political process—in 2008, 43% of the electorate stayed home on November 5.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkvN7GCcTVk[/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0F4LtTlktm0[/youtube]

Indeed, it would behoove candidates to use airtime to explain their policies and the effect these would have on the American public. A good case in point is Bill Clinton’s DNC speech centered on “arithmetic” which garnered him not only praise from the talking heads but also from the general public, putting his favorability ratings at an all-time high.

The easiest and most effective solution might be the cheapest one: to stop throwing money at candidates like they’re fast moving consumer goods and to end the negative ads. Communication that illustrates a candidate’s platform and tries to make the byzantine world of Washington easier for the American voter to understand can only help the process.

(cover image: http://myfantasticescape.danoah.com/)

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