Our Hypocrisy on Negative Advertising

Everybody I know, both liberal and conservative, says they hate negative advertising, that it is dirty and turns them against politics and politicians in general.  Polls uniformly show large majorities of Americans are opposed to negative advertising.

Nonetheless, political campaigns from both parties continue to use them.  They are usually couched in visceral, emotional terms and images, designed to make an opponent seem like an extremist or a radical.  They very frequently twist or distort a candidate’s position on a given issue, and sometimes tell outright lies.  Or they use edge cases and nightmare scenarios that make a position seem extreme.  Two prime examples are Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” ad in the 1964 presidential election against Goldwater, and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad in his 1988 presidential race against Michael Dukakis.  The 2016 presidential election, as it did in so many ways, took things to an extreme, and was couched largely in negative terms by both candidates.  Many people ended up casting their votes more against a certain candidate than for anyone.

Academic studies have debated whether such advertising is successful or not, and the data is not conclusive.  However, clearly political campaigns think they work, since they spend so much money on them.  I have to say that, in this instance, I trust the pols know their business.

One thing is definitely clear, however.  Despite our disdain for negative advertising, we do not punish those candidates who engage in it.  Perhaps that is because we think all politics is dirty, so you might as well vote for the person who you agree with on more issues (or for single issue voters, on their one vital issue).

Perhaps it is because we can’t really agree on what is and isn’t negative advertising.  Most of us think it is fair to criticize an opponent on their positions and statements, as a way of drawing a sharp contrast.  On the other hand many of us think it is “negative” when a candidate accuses his opponent of negative advertising, one of the reasons it is so hard for a campaign to defend itself against negative attacks.  It is noteworthy that many people consider negative attacks on candidates they favor to be unfair, but attacks on candidates they don’t to be completely justified.  For example, many of those who considered criticism of President Obama’s golf habit unfair have no problem with criticism of President Trump for the same thing, and vice versa.  (OK, there is a point of perhaps valid criticism in that Trump criticized Obama himself for golfing, swore he would never do that, and now does the same thing, in fact does it even more – so you can say it is the hypocrisy you are criticizing, not the golf itself).

So what takes a campaign ad past the acceptable practice of drawing contrasts and into the realm of the “negative advertising” that we all purport to hate?  The line isn’t clearly defined, but like Justice Potter Stewart famously said with regard to obscenity, I know it when I see it.

The issue is one of fairness, in the end, and I think that is not all that hard to discern.  Obviously ads that tell outright lies about their opponent are unfair.  I would also say ads that try to manipulate emotions by using extreme edge cases are also unfair, as are ads that twist an opponent’s position or grossly misrepresent it.  Finally, I would say that ads that appeal to bigotry are unfair.

In the first of our two examples, Johnson’s Daisy girl ad, we see some of these traits.  It was clearly designed to manipulate emotions by implying the precious little moppet would be destroyed by nuclear weapons if Goldwater was elected.  It definitely distorted Goldwater’s pro-defense, tough on Communism platform.  And it was an edge case, the worst possible thing that could happen, not the most likely.

In the second example, Bush’d Willie Horton ad was also clearly designed to manipulate emotions, as well as appeal to conscious and self-conscious bigotry, with its imagery of an angry, mean looking African-American man who abused the system and committed terrible crimes, implying this is what the result of a Dukakis presidency would be.  It was an edge case that clearly distorted Dukakis’ liberal but not terribly liberal views on justice.

Both ads were tremendously successful.  Both candidates who used them won, despite the fact the ads were highly criticized and decried at the time as unfair, and continue to be used as examples of unfair campaign advertising.

In other words we, the American people, are complete and utter hypocrites when it comes to negative advertising.  We not only don’t punish those who use it by defeating them at the polls, we frequently reward them

We need to stop that.  We need to stop that now.

Here in Virginia we have a chance,  Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, trailing consistently in most polls, has released a barrage of negative advertising against his opponent, Democrat Ralph Northam, in the last couple of weeks.  Both ads are very similar to Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.

The first accused Northam of wanting to keep violent criminals from the Central-American MS-13 gang in the country by being soft on immigration, and was replete with Horton-like images of menacing looking brown people.  The appeal to bigotry is crystal clear, as is the wild distortion of Northam’s position on immigration through use of an extreme edge case.

The second ad uses the leering face of a man convicted of possessing child pornography to accuse Northam, a pediatrician, of being soft on pedophiles because he supported allowing convicted felons, after they have completed their sentences, to be allowed to vote again.  Again, it was an emotionally manipulative ad that used an edge case to distort Northam’s position.  It actually told an outright lie by saying Northam said he wanted convicted pedophiles to be able to vote, something he never said.

The ads are disgusting examples of negative advertising at its worst.

We cannot reward the man responsible for them.


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