November 7, 2008

Post-Election Analysis: What About Those Negative Ads?

by Logan Ruppel

Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Mysterious phone calls at 3 a.m. A little girl picking daisies who gets nuked. We are all only too familiar with the mudslinging negative campaign ads that gained popularity during the 1960's and have become ubiquitous on television during the past several presidential elections. Negative advertisements involve attacking a political opponent's policies, past voting record, or personal character to garner support instead of focusing on one's own policies and personal qualities. Sometimes the ads are used to impose opinions on the candidate's "good" policies compared with the opponent's "bad" policies, rather than allowing people to decide for themselves.

Negative ads that focus on policy tend to only promote the benefits of a candidate's platform, while ignoring any possible negative consequences. Not surprisingly, these ads present to the viewer only negative aspects of the opponent's policies and fail to mention any benefits. In order to make an effective, legitimate argument, ads need to accurately represent both sides of an issue, laying down credible facts and figures to prove one side while disproving the other. Unfortunately, it probably isn't possible to address all of these proposals in the small space of a 30 or 60 second advertisement. The only campaign-funded TV spot that came remotely close to achieving this during the 2008 campaign was President-elect Barack Obama's half-hour infomercial that presented his message in a clear, concise way.

Many attack ads venture into the realm of logical fallacy, in this case ad hominem. Political advertisements based on this fallacy, which literally means "argument against the man," ignore the real issues and policies at stake. These ads use personal criticisms of an opponent as evidence to disprove his own arguments. This type of reasoning is flawed because there is no connection between personality and stances on issues. One of Senator John McCain's advertisements in the 2008 presidential campaign compared Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, saying "He's the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?" and "Higher taxes, more foreign oil." This ad characterized Obama as nothing more than a famous face with no substance just because he has become wildly popular in America and the world. Also, saying that Obama is for higher taxes was misleading, as he intends to lower taxes on everyone except the very wealthy and wants to lessen dependence on foreign oil, not increase it.

Most candidates who use negative campaigning are in a last ditch effort during the final weeks of an election to make up for falling behind in the polls and fundraising. Public reactions to excessive negative campaigning have been largely negative themselves. While the base of support for the attacker most likely will be rallied to support him or her, the more moderate or swing voters may be disgusted with the tone of the campaign. Negative ads force an emotional response in viewers, possibly prompting them to forgo intellectual opinions of candidates and reject them out of fear. By going too far or too personal with attack ads, candidates can actually provide a boost for their opponent's campaigns by turning people off to the aggressive and seemingly loathing candidate. Negative ads overall contribute to polarized politics by driving a wedge of animosity between already opposed voters and lessen voter turnout due to alienation of the centrist electorate.

(Photo by larilari of Goiania, Brazil via stock.xchng; photo discovered through To see the classic "Daisy" ad from 1964, please check below.)

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