Top Operatives: Arizona Violence Won't Make Political Ads Any Nicer

There May Be Some Toning Down of Rhetoric in Near Term, but Expect More of the Same

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NEW YORK ( -- Does political rhetoric lead to acts of violence?

When Jared Loughner shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and 19 others at a regular gathering of Mr. . Giffords' constituents in Tucson, some observers quickly framed the act as the fallout of violent political speech, with some specifically citing Sarah Palin's Facebook page depicting a graphic of target cross-hairs on members of U.S. Congress whom Ms. Palin felt should be ousted in the 2010 elections. Ms. Giffords was among them.

Ad Age readers who responded to our poll on the matter were fairly split as of Tuesday, with 51% saying that political marketing had a role in the shooting and the rest saying such messages had nothing to do with the tragedy.

But no matter where people stand on the issue -- and even if Mr. Loughner's motivations turn out to be something other than politics -- the political underpinnings of the attack will certainly have the affect of toning down political marketing messages, at least in the near term.

"In the next couple weeks, members of Congress in both parties will eschew overly inflammatory rhetoric of the kind seen during the first two years of the Obama administration," said J.J. Balaban, a principal partner at Democrat ad firm the Campaign Group. But Mr. Balaban and other political operatives cited the fact that the recent election cycle was by nature a heated rhetorical landmine.

More tellingly, he and others political ad consultants from both parties said that the Arizona shooting should not be blamed on political advertising.

"Television advertising is, by its very nature, broadcasting to a wide audience, which means that it was already rare for candidates to use the kind of inflammatory appeals that may incite violence," Mr. Balaban said. That said, when it comes to preaching to the converted, the messaging gets much more aggressive. "Most of the examples of overheated rhetoric that may have contributed to this tragedy are comments made to supporters or in speeches intended to rally the base -- not something put on television to be seen by supporters, opponents and undecided voters."

Indeed, firing up base supporters in either party often results in the more extreme or charged messages that often play out in election cycles. "It's undeniable that news media and some political-party leaders put out messages that may be more extreme," said Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising. "The reason why they do it, is because they believe it solidifies and inflames their base -- and that's good for fund-raising."

Ms. Palin, of course, has been good at rallying parts of the Republican base. She stands as both Tea Party bellwether and exclamation point given her widespread appeal and sometimes controversial statements -- and her Facebook "target page" was bandied about by many in the media as tastelessly prescient to Arizona.

But this is a connection political operatives have found distasteful itself.

"I thought it was shameful for someone to push that as a story," said Vinny Minchillo, partner at Scott Howell and Company. "It was a tool of a graphic designer, and I'm sure the poor schmuck who did that really hadn't [thought of it] in the light of this -- to bring that up and connect all this is disgusting, really."

While the political tone may be tempered, Mr. Minchillo said the need for electoral victories will ultimately prevail. "Politics is politics," he said. "People have a taste for victory, and politicians are always looking for an edge."

Though marketing tactics may not change much in the long term, veteran political ad man Fred Davis cited that Arizona may well change the mode of campaigning, specifically with regard to meeting constituents and participating in public events. "There's an obvious nervousness there," he said. "You want to serve your constituents, and you want to do public events, but there may be fewer events, fewer town halls."

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