Carol Platt Liebau: Defending Negative Ads

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Defending Negative Ads

There's a new book out by Vanderbilt professor John Geer, which argues that negative political ads are actually good for democracy -- and contain more facts than positive ads. (The issue is covered here today in The Washington Post and Geer himself wrote an intriguing op/ed for last weekend's LA Times).

My brief experience with the topic (I wrote my thesis on images of democracy in US Senate campaign ads) leads me to believe that Professor Geer is absolutely right. Often, "negative" ads are more likely to be factual than positive ones, and they also provide information that voters may not be likely to obtain elsewhere. (They can also be incredibly funny . . . the best, I recall, was Senator [then candidate] Lieberman's ad criticizing incumbent Lowell Weicker's terrible attendance record. It was a cartoon in which a sleepy bear -- with a hilarious resemblance to Weicker -- came stumbling out of his cave, unaware of what's going on around him).

Negative ads are particularly important for Republicans. Given the political predilections of the press, it's understood that a lot of negative information about Republican candidates will issue from the media. Republicans need a way to respond, and often, paid media is the best (or only) alternative.

The press tut-tutting isn't just an example of an annoying, goo-goo "can't we all just get along?" mindset. Its focus on negative advertising is a relatively new phenomenon, as Professor Geer points out, and incredibly overstated in modern times, compared to the campaigns of the past.

Moreover, lest anyone forget, there is a marketplace -- not only for ideas, but in politics. Any decent candidate knows that he or she risks a backlash by airing a negative ad that is tasteless, untrue or otherwise over the (undefined but know-it-when-you-see-it) line. So there's a market-type incentive for candidates to air truthful, and relatively responsible negative ads.


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