Let’s speak out now to shut down attack ads

If you have any access to US television stations, you have probably been using the mute button a lot lately.  As the US voters prepare to go to the polls, the airwaves are polluted with non-stop negativity.  It is not just the Democrats and the Republicans who are buying ad time to slam the other guy.  In addition to the hundreds of millions they are spending, an estimated $284 million has been spent by non-party groups, most of it to support Republicans.  It looks as though those groups will spend more in this season’s congressional races than they spent in the 2008 presidential race.

People who are knowledgeable about politics say “going negative” works.  Attack ads are effective.  It wasn’t until I was researching my last book that I took the time to try to figure out why. I hate the shift in our political culture to nasty and ad hominem campaign advertising.  Everyone I know hates it.  Every audience I have addressed, in every town meeting, anywhere in Canada, say they hate it too.  So how on earth does something everyone professes to hate keep getting more prevalent? 

In working on my book I found the research from numerous experts on public opinion.  Attack ads work by driving down voter turn-out.  Attack ads discourage people from showing up to vote. 

So, by definition, attack ads are anti-democratic.

How does driving down voter turn-out help a political party?  Well, look at the 2008 election campaign.  The nastiest ads were run by Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party.  If you measure whether they “worked” by whether the Conservatives got more votes, you would conclude they failed.  The Conservatives got approximately 170,000 fewer votes in 2008 than in 2006. 

So, no surprise, an attack ad that makes fun of other politicians did not persuade voters to support the party running the ad.  The attack ads helped the Conservatives because of the impact it had on the voter base that supported the Liberals in 2006.  Over 700,000 fewer of them bothered to vote at all.  Historically low voter turn-out helped Mr. Harper’s party win more seats – with fewer votes. 

Knowing this, I am really worried about the next federal election campaign in Canada.  With every election, voter turn-out goes down.  Regardless of what party you support you should be very worried about the erosion of democracy in reduced voter participation. 

Why not ban paid television advertising in elections?  Why not keep an equal amount of the public airwaves available for messages that explain policy differences and disallow the carefully crafted negative attacks?  It has been done in many other countries.  The U.K., South Africa, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, Chile, Sweden, Ireland, the Philippines - the list is long.  Canada and the US stand out as practically the only countries with access to buying TV ad time for political parties.  Some countries ban TV ads, but allow radio. Others ban both.

Let’s have this conversation now.  Let’s demand a ban on paid television political advertisements, before and during the writ period.  Think of it as an experiment.  If democracy is sick, let’s stop poisoning it and see if things get better.

For more information about US non-party campaign ads, see NPR article 'Independent' Groups Behind Ads not so Independent


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With municipal elections over

With municipal elections over and many having taken place using “alternative” voting methods, some of which enabled voters to make their choices over a period of a week prior to closing, I recently mused whether, should this trend ever get to Federal voting, whether opinion polls should be banned during that period. It seems that like political party advertising, opinion polls have a overly strong effect on voter preferences, particularly in the last few days before the polls close.


We SHOULD be voting for the best person to do the job, bearing in mind the overly strong influence that party politics has upon the actions of that individual after he or she is elected, that is not however how it works. Negative advertising, strategic voting based upon the latest polls, and Party Politics has a far greater influence than it should, but can we eliminate or reduce these things? In an open and democratic society (and I am starting to wonder if we can continue to describe Canada as such) can we dictate who says what and when?


Drawing the line between free speech and political interference with election processes is a very difficult line to draw but given the direction that such things are going is one that perhaps needs to be defined. When the ability to blast the airwaves with advertising has a measurable outcome as to the results (even if that outcome is to not vote) it is time to reconsider the rules, if for no other reason that the less affluent amongst us may well be disenfranchised by not being able to heavily fund those partys that may better represent our interests. Recent revelations that publicly funded utility companies are funding political campaigns reinforces my belief that we must look at restricting the manner in which such advertising is used and funded.


Democracy requires dialog, please join us at http://democracyunderfire.blogspot.com/

Political Advertisement

Politicians probably should not use  SHORT television advertising techniques for election purposes whether it is a positive and promoting ad or negative ad because these ads are very short ads more often in the matter of seconds that repeat over and over throughout the day; this method of advertisement does not have any value regarding provision of logic and reasoning; these ads do not target viewers with long attention spans who are seeking facts and data; this source of advertisement usually provides some images that target viewers gut feeling and promotes more emotional decision making for the people with short attention span;  for example, a black and white ad shows very old faces, sick children, and homeless people, and it blames it on one of the candidates; in contrast, in the other short ad, the other candidate is portrayed as a hero and problem solver in a very bright and peaceful scenery. This form of advertisement does not offer any benefit for the eligible voter to decide according to facts and logic; it simply promotes wrong decision making conducted by pure emotions.

At the same time, how about

At the same time, how about strengthening our laws against libel and slander?  Not requiring that actual damage be measured in monetary terms only.  And subsidizing legal fees for prosecuting for libel and slander so that cost of going to court is not prohibitive.

Respectfully, D. Scott Barclay


How about monetary damages plus some multiple of the cost of civil proceedings?  The problem of course is that it opens up a venue for stifling free speech.