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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