Nasty, negative campaign ads

Oct 19, 2010, 3:29 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

One thing Democrats and Republicans could possibly agree on this election season – campaign ads from both sides are nastier than ever.


That’s part strategy, and partly because of a change this year that allows anonymous donors to pump millions of dollars into the state. Between $35 million and $40 million in political advertising has been bought or reserved in the Seattle market this fall.

“The amount of money that’s been dumped into this market is unprecedented,” says Melissa Durfee-Davis, media director for DNA Seattle.

Her advertising agency hasn’t done any of the political ads this year. Their challenge is getting “regular clients” on the air.

“It’s difficult for us when we find that business we placed months ago is now getting pushed aside because these political ads get priority during this time,” she says.

The Campaign Media Analysis Group has looked at commercials across the country, and they found 89 percent of the ads attack the opponent. That doesn’t give voters much information to go on.

“Ads are a fairly low quality source of information for people to make choices about issues and candidates,” says Johnathon Lawson, executive director of Reclaim The Media – a media watchdog and justice group based in Seattle.

There’s a strategy behind negative ads. Challengers support attack ads because it makes them appear more competitive and gets them attention. Incumbents usually respond with their own negative spin because they don’t want to appear weak. Many political advertising strategists say positive ads are a waste of time because they don’t get notice. They also say if ads are nasty enough, some voters might get fed up and write off the whole election. If older voters don’t vote, that could benefit challengers more than incumbents.

Lawson says one thing that is different this political season is the amount of money pouring in from anonymous sources. A Supreme Court decision earlier this year – Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission – ruled that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

The result? Campaign ads that don’t tell you who’s paying for the message fill the airwaves. They’re fueled by anonymous interests outside of Washington.

“Independent expenditures in the Rossi-Murray race are in the rage of $3.5 million which is pretty incredible for a mid-term Senate race,” Lawson says. “It creates cynicism when viewers and readers know that they’re being manipulated. And they are being manipulated.”

The other problem Lawson sees with this year’s campaign ads, the oversimplified messaging without a lot of truth value in the 30 or 60 second commercials. He thinks the liquor initiatives ads are the worst this year.

“Not only because there are two initiatives, but because all of the groups that are sponsoring ads have such confusing sounding names, and there’s no way of telling who the donors are,” says Lawson.

Together, the campaigns for and against six initiatives that are on the November ballot have raised $55.8 million. They’ve spent $41.6 million, with two weeks to go before the ballots are due. The non-partisan group estimates candidates, parties and special interest groups nationwide have spent more than $3.5 billion during the 2010 campaign year.

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Nasty, negative campaign ads