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
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
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
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