If you’re looking for a high road in political advertising, you’ll find it somewhere between the South Pole and Hades. Short of photoshopping devil horns on your opponent, anything goes. There are no rules. It’s Thunderdome, where truth is relative and context is but a rumor.
We’ve reached the point in the current election cycle when we’re all sick of attack ads. We’d probably see fewer of them if there was some hard evidence they didn’t work. One thing ad folks – political and otherwise – understand is what motivates potential customers to action.
Negative ads are nothing new. If you’re old enough you might remember Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad in 1964. Johnson was trying to portray his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, as a reckless militarist, though Goldwater himself was never mentioned in the ad.
The ad shows a little girl picking a daisy in a field and counting. Before she gets to 10, she’s interrupted by a male voice counting down a nuclear missile launch followed by a mushroom cloud. The tagline reads, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” In other words, a vote for Goldwater is a vote for nuclear annihilation. Unfair but effective. Johnson won in a landslide.
Today, thanks to technology and all sorts of digital hocus pocus, it’s easier than ever to make even the most reasonable statesman look like a hysterical maniac.
In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is running against Democrat and former marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath.
In one of a series of ads, the McConnell camp tries to portray McGrath as a far-left radical, unhinged over the election of Donald Trump. McGrath is shown, in most unflattering black and white video and looking positively loopy, saying, in an angry tone, “I am not accepting of this!” McGrath, says the voiceover, wanted to “remove” Trump from office. She’s later called “Extreme Amy McGrath.”
McGrath is running ads of her own in which McConnell appears only slightly less evil than Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons.” One McGrath ad opens with a creepy montage of black and white McConnell photos with McGrath saying, “Mitch McConnell has spent his whole political career trying to stop people from getting affordable health care.” She goes on to tie McConnell to Kentucky’s high cancer mortality rate and its prevalence of heart and lung disease. Of course, Kentucky has one of the highest obesity rates in the country and is second to only West Virginia in cigarette smoking. So, there’s that.
If we’re wondering why so many good, qualified people spurn political office, we really don’t need to look much further than political attack ads. Not that there aren’t good people currently serving, but exposing oneself to constant ridicule and mischaracterization is not all that appealing to someone who is already successful and shielded from public scrutiny. Why anyone wants to be president, I have no idea.
Politics can be nasty business and it doesn’t get any nastier than a month before an election. But when it’s all about winning, nothing is sacred and money is no object. Advertising Analytics projects $6.7 billion will be spent on advertising in the 2020 election cycle and at least half of that will be spent in the last 10 weeks of the campaign.
It’s more than a little ironic that Republicans and Democrats alike take turns bemoaning the state of our political discourse and, at the same time, spend millions trying to figure out how to hit the other guy where it hurts the most. Hate and hyperbole are part of the game and, worst of all, if you aren’t willing to engage and get dirty, you probably won’t win.
I can’t pretend to have an answer, only a suggestion for our elected representatives of both parties: Before you yield to political strategists who can rationalize any tactic as long as it achieves the desired result, consider cleaning it up. Elevate the conversation. Talk about issues and vision. Put away the blunt instruments. You can change the tone of the discussion, assuming that’s really what you want.
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Copyright 2020 Rich Manieri, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at [email protected]