The vitriol in political ads badly serves U.S. elections

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Remember how Sept. 11 was going to change everything and lead to, among many other things, a gentler, less combative and less personal style of politics? Yeah, right.

This column was supposed to be about creativity in the mid-term U.S. election campaigns-now that they are all over and the results are in. However, the depressingly low turn-out in my home city, New York, and in other key races made me rethink. And you try writing a column finding creativity in the barrage of vitriol we have all just had to endure.

The endless months of campaigning made me, a European, feel an outsider here more than anything else I can think of-bar the upfronts, "March madness," chat show host Yolanda and corn dogs. But a quest to understand made me the most interested of consumers. It wasn't easy to stay that way. By voting day, about $1 billion had been spent on political ads. While the money is a welcome boon, particularly in the local spot TV and radio markets, how much was well spent? Is political campaign advertising eating itself?

Overstatement becomes its own "wallpaper." Reeling from the sheer weight of advertising, and the avalanche of invective it contains, we have become inured to hyperbole.

Can freedom cannibalize itself? If you accept that anyone should be able to run for office and that we have a right to know each candidate's message, does exerting no apparent control over a politician's ad spending or over the context and content of the ads do more harm than good?

First, the context: How can any message survive when an ABC TV station runs five political ads consecutively in one break, as it did in New York before Barbara Walters fawned over Justin Timberlake on pre-election night? I am trying hard to discover what the New York state comptroller is or does, and what the county executive does. But any other interested party would be none the wiser.

Then, the content: With the two main parties so close in the center on issues; with homeland security and the looming war on Iraq apparently off limits; with Democrats reluctant to attack Republicans on the economy and with so many big races so close, personal attacks were inevitable. The end result is that-at least in New York/New Jersey-it is hard to know your Golisano from your Hevesi, your Grucci from your Lautenberg. I've mixed them up deliberately (as they were in that break), but you get the point, and you can apply it to your own local races.

And the spending issue? We've been there before. Though Tom Golisano, a candidate for New York governor, has just blown $50 million, candidates such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg used their vast resources well-to the detriment of candidates who can't afford that level of spending.

The U.S. is one of the world's most successful democracies. But the election system appears badly served by irresponsible political advertising. What's more, it is contributing to the annual increase in the dislike of advertising and advertising people. A few restrictions on a micro level, in the form of regulations on campaign spending, on placement and on content, might actually lead to an increase in freedom in its more profound sense.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of AdAgeGlobal.com, AdCritic.com and Creativity.

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