November 2, 2010
NEW YORK -- If you've had your TV or radio on over the past month or so, you can bear witness to the fact that the general theme of this year's bumper crop of political ads seems to be that both the incumbents and the challengers, in just about every race, are wholly unfit for office. Hell, if you believe the ads, the candidates all need to be rounded up and thrown in jail.
After all, they've mislead us, voted for ungodly legislation, lied, cheated, and stolen. And, if you believe the ads, they have done it in the most under-handed and malicious ways.
What is up with negative ads? Why are there so many this election season? Who are they hurting or helping?
You are in luck my friend. I've just cracked open a diet root beer, I've poured it into a tall pilsner glass filled with ice and I'm about to answer all of your questions.
First of all, yes. There are more negative ads this year and they are pound for pound, more negative than they have been in the past, and they are coming from Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partyists, independents and people who, quite frankly, made up their political affiliations like New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan of The Rent is Too Damn High Party.
The simple explanation is that negative ads are effective. Political strategists live and die on polling. They constantly have their finger on the pulse of the voter. The best of these ads focus on fundamental differences between the candidates by oversimplifying and exaggerating them.
TakeThe Daisy Girl ad from the 1964 presidential election where Lyndon Johnson's camp suggested that Barry Goldwater would drop an H-bomb and blow us all up if he was elected president. Or the very effective Willie Horton ad, used in 1988 by George H. W. Bush.
Horton was a convicted felon serving a life sentence in Massachusetts. While out on a week-end furlough program, he raped a woman. The Bush campaign crafted a powerful commercial painting his Democratic opponent, former Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime.
Some of this year's bumper crops of ads are meant to be funny and capitalize on mistakes made by the candidates, like the TV addeveloped by Ariz. Sen. John McCain's camp — a send-up on a decision made by his challenger, former Congressman J. D. Hayworth to involve himself in a 2007 infomercial promoting "free money" from government grants.
Democratic congressional candidate Alan Grayson has an ad that calls his Republican challenger, Dan Webster, Taliban Dan, and uses a statement Webster made to a religious group quoting the Bible that wives should submit to their husbands as indicating that he is anti-women and would support the most heinous legislation as it relates to women's rights. Webster has agressively criticized the comments as having been taken out of context.
The midterm elections have created a perfect storm. Republicans and Democrats support different types of legislation so special interest groups seeking to gain power or retain it are spending record amounts. This year, spending for the midterm elections may surpass $4 billion, or more than double what was spent in 2008.
In addition, the races are close and the stakes are high. Republicans could potentially win enough seats to gain a majority in the House and/or the Senate and also gain key Governor positions.
The net effect of too much negativity in political campaigns generally causes voters to stay home. This would aid Republican candidates.
The Democratic Party was successful in 2008 in recruiting new voters, many of them minorities and young people. These voters have not seen the radical change they were hoping for, and may be disillusioned enough with the entire process that they stay home and don't vote.
The increased spending is good for local broadcasters and cable operators who have been among the hardest hit by the recession. Local TV stations will get about half of the spending. Cable and radio will get about 9 percent each and newspaper about 8 precent. Online advertising is not yet used heavily in local campaigning.
Both the volume of the ads and the generally negative tone are also highlighting another fact: that right now government, particularly the federal government, is not working well together. Voting in the House and Senate has overwhelmingly gone straight down the party line.
I had a car once that was nice to look at but very loud and not very reliable. It made a lot of noise and burned a lot of gas, and it didn't get me where I wanted to go. As soon as I could, I got rid of it and ever since then I've paid more attention to performance and reliability than any other factor when I've purchased a car.
Poll after poll suggests voters are frustrated by all of the negative noise of the campaigns. In advertising, many corporate clients learn the hard lessons of angering consumers — it always comes back to bite you.
Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.