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A Publication of WTVP

November 6 was a great day for me. No, it wasn’t a birthday or anniversary. It was the day after Election Day. And words can’t express how relieved I was to be able to open a newspaper and turn on the TV without seeing negative political ads. I view them as the worst of marketing and am personally offended that some people in my profession waste their talent on ugly, destructive messages.

It gives me no comfort to learn that using negative or “smear” ads against a political opponent is as old as politics itself. In the second presidential election—between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—Adams’ supporters called Jefferson an “atheist” and a “coward.” On the other side, Jefferson backers claimed Adams, if elected, would “tear up the Constitution and name himself ‘king of America.’” Even the beloved Abraham Lincoln was a target for mudslinging. In one early campaign, he was labeled “Honest Ape” (in reference to his less-than-model-like features) by the competition.

But possibly the ugliest campaign ever was between presidential candidates John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s campaign labeled Adams “The Pimp,” alleging he coerced a woman into an affair with the czar of Russia while he was an ambassador there. How can you top that? Leave it to the Adams campaign to call Jackson’s mother “a common prostitute.”

No, political mudslinging isn’t new, but it’s used more often—and seen by more people—than ever before. I would guess at least half of the political ads I saw on television this fall were negative (and that number might be conservative). In many cases, it was hard to tell which candidate the ad was for, unless you read the fine print. But you always knew whom it was against.

Who’s to blame for the current ugly state of political advertising? We are, if you believe we have responsibility for government regulations. Since 1934, the Federal Communication Act has permitted broadcasters to reject misleading ads for every type of consumer product or service. Unfortunately, this Act doesn’t include advertising for political candidates. So while two candidates can use the airwaves to call each other names that would make a sailor blush, a network can reject a laundry detergent commercial if it feels the whitening claims are overstated. Go figure.

A report done by the Institute for Global Ethics revealed 80 percent of voters “believe attack-oriented campaigns are unethical and damaging to a democracy.” And what are the chances political advertisers will clean up their act? Zero. It’s not because politicians are evil people (well, usually not). It’s because negative political tactics work. 

Research shows people are more likely to believe attack ads, especially those that go unanswered by the candidate under attack. It’s also been shown a negative ad’s influence grows in the minds of voters as time passes. They may not like the negative tone of the ad when they first see it, but, over time, voters remember the negative message and forget who the messenger was.

In the world of political advertising, turning the other cheek doesn’t work. That’s why negative political advertising is a vicious, never-ending cycle. As soon as one candidate unleashes a negative ad, his or her opponent is virtually obligated to strike back. It’s either that or lose the election. And neither party is likely to fund a candidate who’s not willing to get in the mud.

Wouldn’t it be nice to go into a voting booth and cast a vote for the best candidate…and not the lesser of two evils? Isn’t it about time political advertising got back to the issues and left out the personal attacks? Is it too late to repair voter cynicism and mistrust? And what effect is today’s political climate having on children? 

I can see it now. An ad in a grade-school newspaper that reads: “Billy Anderson wasn’t potty trained until he was four. Is this the kind of person we want on the 7th grade student council?”

As long as lies are legal, nothing will change. Many good candidates won’t run. Disgusted voters won’t vote. Democracy will be diminished. Just as we have laws against stealing, we should have laws against stealing someone’s character. Until some type of reform is implemented, like requiring political advertising to at least meet the same ethical and honesty requirements as laundry detergent, nothing is likely to change. IBI

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