Negative Ads A Tradition in U.S.

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It's that time of year again, when Americans look forward to the changing of the leaves, too-early Christmas sales and some of the nastiest advertising available on TV.

And we'll witness one other thing: the election-year ritual of bemoaning the plague of negative political advertising that darkens the land and threatens our democracy. This will be followed with promises to do better, maybe next time.

Don't believe any of it.

Politicians who want to win won't be giving up negative campaigning for the simple reason that throwing dirt works. Political advertising, in general, is horrid. In a field of ugly ducklings, two things stand out: the swan and the turkey.

And while swans might be nice to look at, turkey is easier to swallow. After all, who would a voter believe: Candidate A, selling himself with soft lighting and promises about the children, or Candidate B and his very specific list of Candidate A's crimes against humanity?

In a perfect world, a candidate would sell herself and her issues. She would hire professionals from Madison Avenue and learn about branding (or, at the least, production values). For example, we are big fans of the work Jimmy Siegel produced for the Eliot Spitzer gubernatorial campaign in New York. But Mr. Spitzer has the luxury of having no real competition.

Like it or not, an election is a one-day fire sale. The point of political advertising is to get people through the door. Brand loyalty will be bought with pork at some later date.

Some may point to research claiming that negative advertising suppresses voter turnout, but there are just as many studies claiming that negative, nasty races actually draw more voters to the polls.

As far as all the calls for civility, one need only remember that in 1800 Thomas Jefferson's opponents claimed the Republicans would burn churches and murder opponents to get to the White House.

Two centuries later, the debate about negative advertising continues. And Americans are still showing up at the polls.
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