Civil Discourse Now

Where the far left and far right overlap for fun and enlightenment

2012 elections: negative political ads in our so-called civil discourse.

   People purport to hate negative political ads on TV.  By "negative ads" I mean ads aimed mainly at trashing one candidate.  Polls that I have read consistently indicate over 60 percent (60%) of respondents do not like negative ads. Yet research and personal observation indicate negative political ads "work." They motivate some people to move, not so much "for" one candidate, but "against" the candidate at whom the ad is aimed (thereby helping the candidate in whose interest the ad was run).

   We have all come to know these ads. The first negative TV ad of note (perhaps, or at least that I recall) was run against Senator Barry Goldwater by LBJ in the 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater was portrayed as a warmonger by the Democratic Party. The TV ad in question showed a little girl playing in flowers. Suddenly a mushroom cloud appeared in the background.

   Technology has improved, but the messages have regressed. George H.W. Bush had the Willie Horton ads to run against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Locally, the campaign people for Drew Young, one of the few Republicans for whom I ever have voted, ran what has now become the run-of-the-mill negative ad against Jeff Modisett, in which old tape of Modisett was turned to grainy black-and-white and run at slo-mo with his real voice garbled while a voice-over told the viewer what outrageous things Modisett would do as Marion County Prosecutor. The ad was credited by some with Young’s loss. This would seem to contradict the research: a negative ad with blow-back effect. Unfortunately, the negatives overall are effective.

   Why do negative ads work? Some people say the negative ads give them information upon which to base their decision at the voting table (those little four-legged stands we use in Marion County). A study from Stanford University says the information from negative ads generally is not accurate.

   Perhaps negative ads work in the same way as Big-Time Championship Wrestling (as it was called when I was young; whatever it is called now). No one doubts the efforts of the participants, and the world is made a much simpler place when painted in black-and-white (with slightly better resolution vis-a-vis the graininess). As human beings, each us has a darker side, otherwise negative gossip would not be the nation’s leading pastime at work.

   Is there a way in which we can limit or eliminate negative ads? Well, we cannot ban the ads. I whimsically suggested that a few weeks ago, and Civil Discourse Now co-host Paul Ogden jumped on my suggestion to suggest that I am nuts. Bad taste is fully protected by the First Amendment, otherwise most prime time programming would never make it onto the air.

   One can use one’s vote. Since, usually, both major parties resort to negative ads, that would mean a spike in the ratings for alternative parties. Another option would be to write the campaign in question—unless it is a Super PAC, in which case (1) it will not care about your opinion and (2) it is a computer—and express your outrage. If you receive an answer, probably it will be in the form of a "thank you for your thoughtful opinion; we will keep it in mind for the future." And then, if that candidate wins, next election negative ads will come forth.

   At least the campaign will have kept your opinion in mind.

   Next week we will have two special editions of The Show. Both will stream "live." On Sunday, Paul Ogden, Jon Easter, a guest to be announced, and I will discuss predictions for the 2012 primary on May 8. On Saturday is the Mini.

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Comment by Paul K. Ogden on April 30, 2012 at 7:51am

There are four ways to vote in a campaign.  Vote for A, Vote For B, Vote against A, Vote against B. In a campaign involving an incumbent you have to say why you shouldn't vote for the's essentially a referendum on the incumbent.  There is no way a Mourdock could beat a Lugar without telling voters why they shouldn't return the 36 year veteran to the Seante.

Good negative ads are: 1) specific and include support; 2) accurate; and 3)avoid distortions. The Drew Young mailings about his opponent were the brainchild of one David Brooks.  He did a similar one in a congressional race.  Both resulted in blowback, because he distorted the candidate's picture...a big no, no.


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