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Why Do Political Attack Ads Persist?

The reason is simple. They work.   The US is just four weeks away from the first presidential primary elections and the year of campaigning for the November 2012 presidential elections has started.   Professor John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Advertising in Presidential Campaigns states a very good case for why we should overlook the incivility of negative campaigns ads.

The reality is that politics is a rough-and-tumble game, and campaigns are pitched battles for control of the government. The stakes are often high, and the competition is usually fierce.  Attack ads may be uncivil, but what’s so important about civility when the future of the country is at stake? They may constitute scare tactics, but fear also may be appropriate. The real issue should not be the tone of an ad but whether the information presented is useful to voters.

For one thing, negative ads are much more likely to discuss issues than positive ads. The general view is that negative ads are just personal attacks. That is wrong. And even when the attacks do get personal, more than three-quarters of them deal with the issues of experience or honesty  pieces of information that are important and relevant when selecting a president.

Negative ads are also much more likely to be buttressed by evidence than positive ads. Candidates can talk about supporting a strong national defense. Negative ads have to go further. It was not credible for Kerry simply to claim that the president’s policies were weakening national defense; he needed to demonstrate just how Bush’s policies undermined our security. Candidates face a burden of proof when they go on the attack.

The simple fact is that if negativity were to disappear from our electoral battles, so would our claim to being a democratic nation.

It is worth it to  read the entire LA Times op ed piece by Professor John Geer.   NPR also has a segment interviewing Geer http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5359586

But what does Miss Manners have to say about negative political campaigning?

Dear Miss Manners,
I am currently running for an elected position in my community. At this stage in the game, people are starting to ask questions about how I feel about my opponent and his background. Because he and I have worked together in the past, I know what a bad leader he is.

I would like to run a campaign devoid of rude comments, but I of course am bombarded with questions from voters and the press. How do I politely express myself towards this other person?

Gentle Reader,
Respectfully. You would be surprised how many candidates have lost by being treated respectfully.
But before you thank Miss Manners for nudging you to throw the election, please allow her to explain a dynamic of which every other politician seems to be unaware. That is that politeness helps, not hinders, in skewering an opponent.

When an opposing candidate calls his rival a cheat and a liar, voters tend to figure that oh, well, they both are, that’s just the way politicians talk. If you say what a nice person your opponent is, only unfortunately misguided on certain key issues and stymied when it comes to getting things done, they may actually listen to the rest of what you have to say.   http://lifestyle.msn.com/Relationships/Article.aspx?cp-documentid=8319061

Note that she does not advise the Gentle Reader to not make mention of his opponent’s leadership deficits but rather advises  HOW he does it.

Comment away, readers, however please note that I will not approve comments which attack specific political parties or candidates.

December 16, 2011 Addendum:  Miss Manners column on rude politicians and her suggestion that the way to deal with them is to vote them out of office.


{ 40 comments… add one }
  • Maitri August 23, 2011, 4:06 pm

    Personally, I don’t vote for any candidate for whom I have seen an “attack” ad. Not necessarily a negative ad, but one that I deem to be a personal attack against his or her opponent. Sadly, this usually means that I don’t vote often 🙂

  • Pat in France December 5, 2011, 6:42 am

    That kind of campaigning is illegal in many countries. I always find it shocking, embarrassing and giving a poor image of the candidate and his or her voters.

  • anonymous December 5, 2011, 7:24 am

    While I generally agree with the sentiment above, and while I can see the utility of some types of negative/attack ads (as long as they’re not inappropriately personal), there are some that are just – I’m sorry but it’s true – TOTALLY inappropriate. There are ones that degrade democracy and while they’re protected by free speech and an expression of that right, they’re the types of ads that spur debates on the merits of free speech.

    I’m thinking of one in particular that ran several years ago in the Los Angeles area. Some group I’ve never heard of ran an ad depicting the incumbent – a woman, and yes, this point matters – as a stripper, shaking her backside as “gang members” took money out of her shorts while rapping (which contained some profanity).

    I had no opinion in that race – have never been to California let alone LA, had never heard of the candidate and know nothing of the background of that race (I want to make that clear – I’m not rooting for or against any party in this post). I only know of the ad because it became notorious on a national scale and was recently mentioned in an article on a major news magazine website.

    But that ad…that was not a moment of strength for our democracy. That was just sad.

  • Typo Tat December 5, 2011, 7:41 am

    Sorry, but I disagree with Miss Manners. Disguising an insult doesn’t make it any less rude, it only makes it sound obnoxious and condescending.

    Instead of focusing on what a bad leader *you think* the other candidate is, talk about what you have done and others have not, as to deserve to be elected.

  • grumpy_otter December 5, 2011, 8:00 am

    I don’t think the two scenarios are analogous–one refers to political ADs, which can be purchased by anyone; Miss Manners is advising the candidate how to speak when directly questioned.

    I can think of lots of ads that skewer an opponent in a pretty horrible way, but when asked directly about their opponents, candidates tend to be very “dainty” in their accusations, as in, “My esteemed colleague voted against this bill in the past, but now she supports it. I find this change in position distressing and my supporters should note that I have always been against it.” Stuff like that.

    I’ve never heard a politician call an opponent a “moron.”

  • Mjaye December 5, 2011, 8:44 am

    This is probably the main reason I got rid of my home phone and got a DVR. I highly recommend the latter as a great way to ignore all the hateful ads.

  • KarenK December 5, 2011, 10:19 am

    Even more egregious are the ads that skew, exaggerate, or outright misrepresent a particular candidate’s position.

    Also, goodness forbid that you ever change your mind about anything at all.

    I’m not totally against negative ads. It is important to point out the differences in position between you and your opponent, which is what I think that Professor Geer supports. It’s not much of a campaign if all you ever say is “I’m better than my opponent. See my happy family. See my happy constituents!” It’s the ones that use inflammatory language or personally attack an individual or their family’s character that I oppose.

    And I really hate the ones that end with, “Call opponent and tell him (or her) …” Seriously? How many people actually call?

  • AMC December 5, 2011, 10:23 am

    I’m totally behind Miss Manners on this one. I consider a “good” negative ad to be one that uses accurate and specific information and does not attack the opponent on a personal level, only on their professional record and position on relevant issues.

  • AMC December 5, 2011, 10:29 am

    Typo Tat- I think there’s a big difference between an insult and a valid criticism. If you’re name-calling or attacking your opponent on a personal level or using inaccurate or misleading information, that’s certainly not acceptable. But you can respectfully criticize an opponent regarding their stance on certain issues or actions they took (or didn’t take) while in office that have negatively affected the community/state/country.

  • Amanda H. December 5, 2011, 10:38 am

    Ugh, I really dislike some of those ads. I recall in an election several years ago, my voting opinion was heavily swayed by these sorts of ads. In this particular case, one candidate’s campaign, so far as I was able to discern from all the ads and interviews and whatnot, boiled down to “Here’s how the other guy has screwed up in office. Vote for me because I’m not the other guy.” Not once did I ever hear the candidate say “Here’s what I’m going to do if elected.”

    I ended up voting for the other guy.

  • Monica December 5, 2011, 10:40 am

    I think a lot of people assume attack ads automatically come from the opposing candidate. This is not always true. Anyone with money can buy air time. If you look up just who funded the ad, a lot of times it is a third party lobby who has zero association with Candidate A, but they hate what Candidate Z could potentially do to their group so much they’ll do anything to get you to choose A or anyone else.

    If they were black and white an easy to distinguish exactly who is saying what and where the info came from, attack ads might have their place in free speech, rude or not. However in some cases it is so thickly veiled as to who makes the ad and where they found those “facts” it borders on plain ol’ swindling and lying.

    I’ll never forget when woman I worked with years ago came up to me and ask me if I was going to vote in the upcoming elections. When I said yes, she made sure I knew not to vote for X candidate, but cause he was terrible for doing L, M, N, O and P. What the woman said to me was word for word what was being broadcast in a local attack ad, which was paid for by a foreign-owned energy company. She just believed whatever ad she saw first.

    I happened to personally know this candidate’s family and that particular ad skewed his words so much I considered most of it an outright lie.

    Of course, I didn’t tell the coworker I thought she was wrong for believing such things. That would have been rude.

  • Wink-n-Smile December 5, 2011, 10:44 am

    There are ways to attack the other side’s politics without getting personal.

    There are ways to point out character flaws in an opponent without getting mean.

    Personally, any candidate who shows that they know how to do these things is more likely to get my vote, because they show true diplomacy. We need diplomacy in our leaders.

  • Amber December 5, 2011, 11:10 am

    I hate all political ads, whether they’re attack ads or the syrupy “I’m the best choice really look at me hold this baby and talk to old people!!!” ads. I say ban them all, so the only people voting will be those who go out of their way to educate themselves about the candidates, rather than someone who gasps at an ad and grouses “Well he can’t possibly be for me!” though the only info they have is a condemning voice in their ear from an ad.

  • Flora Louise December 5, 2011, 11:32 am

    If “attack ads” are wrong does it also follow that comedians such as Jon Stewart and Jay Leno are wrong when they mock politicians for personal shortcomings? Or, perceived personal shortcomings?

  • Twik December 5, 2011, 12:09 pm

    It’s not an attack if you stick to the truth, discuss things that are relevant to government, and avoid a tone that more properly belongs to movie extras with pitchforks screaming “Burn the monster!”

    For example, it is not an attack to say that Candidate X voted for issues that the viewer may disagree with. It’s not even an attack if you say that Candidate X voted in contradictory ways, or never even showed up to vote on many important issues (assuming that these things are truthful).

    It is an attack to imply that this is because Candidate X has been “bought” (again, assuming that Candidate X is not currently involved in an investigation, and if s/he serves his/her term, it may be from involuntary confinement).

  • gramma dishes December 5, 2011, 12:11 pm

    I am reminded of a truly horrible “ad” several years ago in which one of the candidates was totally skewered by another in a manner which was extremely unfair and blatantly untrue. It could easily have been proven untrue had the ad been unleashed in time to provide for a rebuttal, and was in fact proven untrue AFTER the election, but there were definitely people who were influenced by the ad and voted against that candidate because of it.

    It was disgusting on two levels. That someone or group could legally make such an ad based on total lies and also that there were so many people who didn’t stop to think about the content of the ad and question whether or not it could be false before they allowed it to influence their voting.

    I make note of which person puts out extremely negative ads and won’t vote for them. I wish candidates would tell us why we SHOULD vote for them instead of why we should NOT vote for their opponent.

  • Politrix December 5, 2011, 12:36 pm

    This may be slightly off-topic, and I’m not endorsing/criticizing a particular political party, but this article brought to mind a political ad I remember from a few years back. It was meant to attack the challenger for the role of President of the United States (I’m sure a lot of readers here will remember this campaign). The ad was trying to illustrate how the existing president was tough on terrorism, and the challenger didn’t understand the threat to our national security. The ad mentioned the challenger by name, but to demonstrate the “menace” of all those wicked terrorists waiting to destroy our country, the ad featured a pack of wolves, slowly approaching the viewer.
    Only problem was, the wolves were real, healthy, normal wolves, not snarling, not even particularly angry — simply looking and walking towards the camera. No matter how much scary music was being played in the background, they didn’t look all that threatening; as a matter of fact, they looked pretty cute, if you’re a wild animal lover. Wolf enthusiasts from all across the political spectrum were outraged at the portrayal of wolves in such a horrible, negative light (OK, maybe they attack livestock, but c’mon, terrorists? Really?), and this candidate lost a lot of votes from his own party because of it. He did, however, wind up getting re-elected…, but I think he learned his lesson!

  • Ellie December 5, 2011, 12:36 pm

    Attacks at election time are as old as the country itself. Way back then, people were told that if Thomas Jefferson was President, he would send soldiers to every home to confiscate Bibles, the owning of which would be forbidden by law. The more things change, the more they remain the same. I can turn off the TV; I just wish they would stop calling me on the phone, especially since most of them are looking for the person who had my number previously. We are on different ends of the political spectrum, which makes it doubly frustrating.

  • Lola December 5, 2011, 1:16 pm

    When one is in a position to choose between a train wreck and a car pile-up, who really cares about the tone of the ads for either? Substance over form, cats and kittens — not that it helps much.

  • LovleAnjel December 5, 2011, 1:27 pm


    I’ve found myself receiving phone calls from attack robots now. I think they know when you use a DVR to skip commercials.

  • Rug Pilot December 5, 2011, 1:27 pm

    Many years ago our then current lieutenant governor was running for reelection. His main ad talked about what he had accomplished in his previous term and finished with the statement that he would appreciate it if we voted for him. I was so moved that I sent him an email praising him for the ad and stating that I had voted for him rather than my own party’s candidate because of it.

  • Calli Arcale December 5, 2011, 1:40 pm

    Typo Tat — she’s not recommending insulting the other candidate. There is a difference between an insult and expressing a negative opinion. A person truly skilled in etiquette can deliver a sober, precise evaluation of another person’s inadequacies without stooping to mere insult.

    That said, so many of today’s attack ads do something which I find much worse than insult — they obscure, distort, and sometimes demolish the truth. Professor Geer asserts that “Negative ads are also much more likely to be buttressed by evidence than positive ads. ” I am not certain that this is the case. In a properly formed debate, this is true. However, advertising can go into areas that a logics class would never touch. And funny he should mention the 18th century — it’s quite true that the negative ads of the time were quite vicious, far more so than today, but anyone who suggests they tended to have more evidence in them than positive ads has clearly not read very many of them. Back then, they’d go so far as to accuse the other candidate of mass murder, satanism, and the intention of committing genocide once in office. Negative ads have far more OPPORTUNITY to present evidence, but they often do not avail themselves of this opportunity. It is not unusual to see an attack ad which makes falsifiable claims against a candidate and either does not provide citations or provides citations which are either equivocal or actually do not support the position.

    The opportunity for this sort of attack ad is greater today than it was a generation ago, partly because of the explosion of media in which to produce such an ad and the relative cheapness of doing so, but also because of the passage of laws permitting organizations to run ads on behalf of candidates, outside of the normal system of campaign financing. These organizations not only can raise money unencumbered by normal financining limits, but they are also free to be as obnoxious as possible while their preferred candidates takes the high road of plausible deniability. If they say something particularly egregious and he starts getting flack for it, he can always point out that it wasn’t his idea.

    But this is the system we have, and Prof. Geer is probably right that nobody can win an office as important as the Presidency without going very seriously on the offensive.

  • amyw102 December 5, 2011, 1:45 pm

    I have difficulty with the negative political ads because they seem to be so hateful.
    My husband and I visited Florida late last year when there was a political campaign going on, the ads were so constant and so vitriolic that we had to turn off the TV and leave it off. It was upsetting to me to see so much hate splashed across every TV screen and I don’t know how effective it is in informing rather than depressing voters.

  • Diana December 5, 2011, 2:01 pm

    Hi. First time commenter, long time reader 🙂

    I don’t like negative ads either, but I know why people do them.
    Another reason is because if Candidate A has ads that say “Candidate B does/will do X, Y, Z and that’s bad” that does not bind Candidate A to do ANYTHING, even if Candidate A secretly plans on doing X, Y and Z themselves.
    Where as if Candidate A says “I will do A, B, C” and then doesn’t deliver when elected, well then people get mad. So there’s that.

  • Michelle P December 5, 2011, 2:24 pm

    Finally, someone acknowledges that issue. I cannot stand election time due to the attacks on the candidates. I’ve seen ads that talked about the politician’ arrest from twenty years before. I cannot stand the mudslinging.

    I wonder why politicians think that putting down someone else makes us want to vote for them. All it makes me do is turn the channel, and not vote.

  • gramma dishes December 5, 2011, 2:57 pm

    KarenK said “Also, goodness forbid that you ever change your mind about anything at all.” She’s right. Candidates often claim “Well, fourteen years ago, in a situation entirely unlike what we’re involved in today, Candidate B said blah, blah, blah” and accuses B of ‘flip flopping’.

    The truth is circumstances and situations change and those changes require a different point of view and different actions. To think that a person could not or should not ever change their mind about any particular stance would indicate that that person was not a very adaptable thinker.

    I’ve changed my mind about many things during my lifetime. I would hope a candidate would and could too.

  • Erin December 5, 2011, 3:25 pm

    The first political ad I remember seeing was in 1984, and it was so hateful that even though I wasn’t even 10 yet it still influences the way I vote. The politician who put the ad out passed away a while ago but various members of his family still run for office, and I vote against them every time.

  • Chocobo December 5, 2011, 4:45 pm

    This is weird, I wrote a whole paragraph or two without incendiary remarks or mention or political leanings, and I think it got swallowed by the spambot.

    In any case, I agree that there is a difference between an attack ad and a negative ad. Attack ads are misleading and misrepresentative. They drive me nuts and leave a seriously sour taste in my mouth. Not enough to not vote — please, I beg the other commenters, go vote! Our Senator a few years ago ran against another candidate who was supposed to be a shoe-in and had a huge lead in the polls, but the shoe-in ran mudslinging ads. It seemed the voters didn’t like that, because the shoe-in lost and the underdog won. Ironically, now our current Senator is being attacked by his own party, even though that party won in the first place for NOT running attack ads.

    @Monica is right — sometimes the attack ads are not originated by the opposition. Make sure you look for the cheesy “I approve this message” at the end of the ad to see if it is coming from the opposition or not. And it gets dirtier than special interest groups — my sibling is a newspaper reporter, and once told me that sometimes the opposition’s party will (illegally) call specifically at terrible times of day — during dinner, very late at night — pretending to be supporters for the other party. This is done in order to anger the voter toward the opposite party. This happens in both the major U.S. political parties and is usually not endorsed by the candidate, but it happens. So if you get a phone call asking for so-and-so’s support at like 10:00pm, do think twice before getting angry with the supposed candidate.

  • Tanz December 5, 2011, 5:54 pm

    I disagree with Professor Geer on this point: “Negative ads are also much more likely to be buttressed by evidence than positive ads. Candidates can talk about supporting a strong national defense. Negative ads have to go further. It was not credible for Kerry simply to claim that the president’s policies were weakening national defense; he needed to demonstrate just how Bush’s policies undermined our security. Candidates face a burden of proof when they go on the attack.”

    While negative ads do usually explain their position they – in my reading of them – do not rely on *unbiased* evidence to do so. I realise I am putting words in the Professor’s mouth here but he seems to imply that attack or negative ads often present facts to back up their premise and this is just not the case.

    Here in New Zealand a few elections ago a religious group who objected to a couple of political parties and their policys did a nationwide mail drop condemning the parties’ policies. But it came out that the ‘facts’ the pamphlet contained were distorted and unprovable. Plus, when attacking the policies of another candidate usually we’re talking about what will or will not happen in the future if they are elected… which is awfully difficult to prove.

  • Allie December 5, 2011, 6:33 pm

    The governing provincial party where I live recently ran some attack ads against their rival party’s best leadership candidate. I hadn’t heard of him, but when I heard the governing party’s ads sliming him ruthlessly, I said to myself “I don’t know who this guy is, but I like him already”.

  • David December 5, 2011, 7:18 pm

    Michell P mentioned a negative ad mentioning a candidate’s arrest from 20 years prior. I think that whether or not I cared about that would depend on what the arrest was for and whether there was a conviction. But, unless the information about the arrest was fake, that would fall under negative ad rather than attack ad.

    And there are certain ways that something 20 years ago might still be pertinent today – I’m not sure I would care about a youthful drunk and disorderly all that much, after all we all made errors in judgement in our youth – but I certainly would want to know if they had been arrested and convicted of molestation, embezzlement, fraud, impeding an investigation, rape or murder. Those things speak more to a person’s character.

  • Cat whisperer December 5, 2011, 10:14 pm

    I try to concentrate on the things the candidates actually say about the ISSUES of the campaign. If the candidates currently holds a public office, or has held a public office in the past, I look at the record he/she has.

    I really detest the attack ads. Especially if a candidate has children, who can’t avoid being exposed to the attacks on their parent. I have to believe that there are people who would be excellent in leadership roles who wouldn’t run for office in a million years because of the way it would hurt their families. That isn’t a good thing.

    FWIW, my husband and I have both volunteered for city committees that do good things in the community. This is a great way to get involved in community service without getting into politics. Most cities have citizen committees that do things like graffiti abatement, deal with planning and zoning and land-use issues, work on emergency preparedness, do traffic surveys, and allow citizens to assist the local government in important day-to-day functions. This is a great way to “give back” to government and at the same time to learn firsthand how local government really works. You don’t get paid, at least not in our city, but it’s a really great way to participate.

  • Edhla December 6, 2011, 7:37 am

    I agree with Typo Tat. I don’t want to hear about how x party or y politician sucks and is going to [insert some ridiculous never-gonna-happen scenario here, over doctored footage of y politician cackling with mad evil glee]. If you want me to vote for you, you need to tell me not how the other guy is bad, but how YOU are good.

  • Edhla December 6, 2011, 7:41 am

    Incidentally, if anyone watches the Simpsons, you might remember an episode where Homer is accused of molesting a babysitter. The family see the story covered on some dodgy network program, with ominous music and slowed down footage and a whole bunch of other techniques that political/scare campaign ads use to blacken the name of some party or politician. Homer, who’s not on the bright side, exclaims something like, “well of course he’s guilty, listen to the music!”

    Believe you me, there’s a great deal of psychology behind those sorts of ad campaigns and the people who make them are very, very good at what they do- persuading people.

  • Enna December 6, 2011, 11:07 am

    @ Typo Tat: I understand where you are coming from, but say if the oppoenet had fishy expenses and the person had proof of it, that would be different. There is a difference between a debate and a slanging match.

  • MidoriBird December 6, 2011, 10:59 pm

    Over the years I’ve had the opprotunity to know various politicians (some local, some not). Thing is, since I work in a food court, I’ve gotten the opprotunity to see various sides to these individuals that I have since realized isn’t exactly part of their political persona. In a way, I’ve usually liked it that I get to experience just the person, not the politician. It has the unfortunate side effect of ensuring that I’ll never see them as a politician in any sense. In my mind the two rarely go hand-in-hand, and while the opinion is soley my own, it generally ensures I don’t delve into the political game too often.

    What is more, I am careful not to enlighten others with my personal opinions or observations. Personal habits tend to tell me a lot more about the individual than they could ever say or assure out loud, and that carries weight with me. It’s just smarter if I stay away from the political arena. I’d rather just deal with the people, not the image.

  • Mabel December 7, 2011, 3:52 pm

    I think instead of wasting time saying “My opponent does this! And this! Oh Lord, and this!” maybe candidates could say something like “This is an issue that affects everyone, and I plan to do this about it.” If the press asks what they think their opponent will do, say “That’s an interesting question, but why don’t you ask him/her?” Then let the opponent make their stand.

    It would clear up a lot of the rhetoric so we could get to the meat of the matter. There’s so much bullhockey out there I decided I’m not voting anymore. Not until I get someone I feel is actually worth voting for. They ALL can go take a flying leap.

  • Mabel December 7, 2011, 3:52 pm

    Meant to add, not only would it be clearer, but it would be WAY more polite. 🙂

  • delislice December 9, 2011, 9:20 am

    I’ve seen ads that morph an opponent’s picture into a picture of … Satan. Really. No kidding. I’ve seen ads showing a photo of the opponent in a yellow wash, with a voiceover saying he was so ill with jaundice he might die in office. I was pleasantly surprised to later see an ad featuring said opponent, looking healthy. In this sycle, I’m seeing ads that actually feature words made of “stone” chipping and crumbling away while a Dath Vader-like voice intones the doom and disaster befalling those unfortunate enough to be led by this particular government person. It’s dismaying and panders to the lowest common denominator.

    And yet, as the article says, _they work._ On some level, they work. And I’ve heard people regurgitate the talking points in all seriousness of these attack ads.


  • Mucey December 11, 2011, 6:25 pm

    This is why I think we should put a cap on campaign funds. Maybe if the candidates only had a limited amount of resources (or a set number of commercials?), they’d think a little more about what to say that would have the greatest impact.

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