OP-EDS

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October 26, 2010

Insulting our intelligence

Negative campaign ads are more annoying than informative

Woman who looks like Sigourney Weaver’s less attractive sister: “I don’t think he has a clue about unemployment.” Man who looks like your best friend’s dad: “How can you vote against tax cuts for middle-class families?” The woman again: “His whole political career is probably a lie.”

This could literally be any campaign commercial for any politician anywhere. The candidate has taken to the streets (the working man that he is) to find out what actual voters think about his opponent. And then, because this is Illinois and because this is an Alexi Giannoulias commercial against Mark Kirk, another woman comes on at the end with the killer line and surely the decisive idea that will swing every last undecided voter: “I would not trust him with my left shoe.”

Someone actually said this. Fine. I would probably trust Mark Kirk with both of my shoes, if for some reason I needed him to watch them for a few minutes. But worse than the fact that a fellow Illinoisan chose those words to assess Kirk is the fact that Giannoulias’s campaign decided to air them. And people, apparently, just keep on listening.

It feels like every campaign season has especially bad negative advertising. It was in early October that Giannoulias and Kirk met with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board to discuss taxes, war, and—you guessed it—campaign advertising. That was the low point in the campaign (and the high point of dirty advertising), with Giannoulias calling Kirk a liar and Kirk calling Giannoulias a “mob banker.” When the Tribune board asked the candidates if they would renounce negative advertising, the answer was predictable. Giannoulias said he would do it only if Kirk agreed to, and Kirk responded, “I think we’re going to have the full First Amendment in this race.” And the fighters retreated to their corners, preparing for another round of bad ads.

It feels like this will always be the case for every election everywhere. That’s an exaggeration, but not a big one. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that campaign commercials will always be predominantly negative because voters remember those best, and if enough people really cared about eliminating negative ads, they would just do it. That’s how the game has to be played. The voters ultimately do get to say what works and what doesn’t and what goes and what doesn’t, because at the end of the day they’re the ones who have to be convinced. The unfortunate effect of negative ad wars is that politicians have zero room for specifics and instead just have to bludgeon voters to death with stupid advertisements. I’ve always heard clamoring over the mudslinging, but clamoring is all it’s ever going to be.

But has anyone else stopped listening to these ads completely? Is anyone else bored? Because as much as I love bad Photoshop jobs, gruff voices, distorted fonts and poor coloration, I just don’t care anymore, even when I do care about the campaign. I can actually feel my brain turning off when those commercials turn on (which I guess means it’s good that the ads are only 30 seconds long, because I’m not great at being alive while my brain is nonfunctional). The ads are so bad, so poorly made, and so obnoxious that I actually feel better about the target of criticism than I did before.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. F.E.C. decision handed down in January is having multiple effects on political campaigns, all of them bad. The case essentially allows any person or corporation to contribute anonymously to groups that produce campaign advertisements. If you could do something—anything—anonymously, do you think that thing would be positive or negative? Would you be extra-ethical under the protection of anonymity?

That it’s been hard to identify the Citizens United commercials in the Kirk-Giannoulias campaign is an indictment of the role this decision is playing in American politics. If this case were resulting in any positive ads, we would know it because the groups behind positive commercials always—always—make sure people know who’s behind them. Citizens United means more of the usual, just now there’s even more of the usual.

If the question is not whether or not they will continue to exist, it has to be: Who listens to these commercials? Who believes them? Every election season, I pray to the Board of Election gods that voters will be able to find their way around the negative ads, because they’re so often wrong and they show such disregard for the truth. If these politicians are willing to say anything to get the job, I can’t help but feel suspicious of everything they say. These ads succeed only in creating that suspicion, while doing nothing to actually convince me that either candidate is good for the job. After weeks and weeks of negative advertising, Kirk and Giannoulias have done little to prove themselves as viable candidates.

So while I’d be happy to entrust Kirk (or Giannoulias) with my left shoe, I’m not so sure I can trust either to be my senator.

Jake Grubman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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