Negative Ads Will Last as Long as We Have Politicians

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Stop whining about negative political messaging and pining for those mythical days when our political landscape was marked by civility and reasoned discourse.

For those who seem to suffer from historical amnesia, consider poor Thomas Jefferson during the election of 1800. Such a smear campaign was waged against him that New Englanders reportedly hid their Bibles for fear that the infidel president would declare them illegal. The Connecticut Courant wrote that if Jefferson were elected, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."

And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton think they have it bad. But from a communications standpoint, we must acknowledge that negative advertising cuts through the clutter of a few million dollars' worth of biographical and issue ads in which a candidate tells voters just how much better life will be if he or she is elected. Whereas "positive" political advertising eventually becomes a great deal of noise signifying nothing, negative advertising can teach voters more about the politicians involved than is revealed in debates or "issue" spots. Voters learn about the person making the attacks and they learn about how the target responds to pressure. Negative advertising also has the added benefit of being easier to believe. We can all imagine a perfect world where politicians possess both nobility and integrity -- we just can't move there.

It's been claimed before that negative advertising turns off voters and suppresses turnout. The evidence often used to make this claim is scant and unconvincing. And we only have to consider Pennsylvania to see a counterargument. Even after Obama and Clinton got down in the mud, the Keystone state saw record voter turnout. It isn't negative advertising that turns voters off, it's unexciting candidates -- or the feeling that an election doesn't matter.

Bad advertising, in other words, can't kill a good product. And whatever you think about the Democratic candidates, voters obviously think the Democratic primary is a good product. So let the politicians advertise, and let the voters vote. We've only got six more months to go.
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