Pennsylvania Saturated With Negative Ads

This election season, voters have been inundated with campaign advertisements, much of which have been negative. The Philadelphia media market has been saturated with these television ads. To find out how voters feel about this year's deluge, NPR's Robert Siegel travels to Wayne, Pa., to talk with a group of Democrats and Republicans.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For many of us, the fall election campaign is the season of unpleasant interruptions and intrusions: Brochures in the mail; robo calls on the phone; and above all, negative commercials on television.

Our co-host Robert Siegel sat down last night with a group of voters to watch some negative ads together and to hear what they think of them.

(Soundbite of conversations)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We were in Wayne, Pennsylvania, at the home of Colleen Philbin, a 46-year-old social worker and a Democrat. Wayne is a prosperous Philadelphia suburb. It's a historically Republican town in a part of Pennsylvania that has trended Democratic in recent elections. Colleen's friends and neighbors are professionals and business people. Politically, they're a mix.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: Who's on our side...

SIEGEL: We sat down in front of a big high-definition TV and watched six 30-second commercials, two opposing ads from the races for governor, for senator and for the local congressional seat. Here's a sample of the commercials we played, which we selected because each one criticized the other guy.

(Soundbite of TV advertisements)

Unidentified Man #2: Lentz promised he wouldn't take a taxpayer-paid car. He did.

Unidentified Man #3: Pat Meehan wants the richest Americans to keep their tax cuts.

Unidentified Man #4: Tom Corbett, you just don't get it.

Unidentified Woman #1: Dan Onorato is running a TV commercial claiming he has created over 9,000 jobs. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

Unidentified Man #5: The middle class is struggling, but Toomey thinks it's oil companies and Wall Street banks who should pay no taxes - zero.

Unidentified Man #6: Congressman Joe Sestak voted for the Cap and Trade energy tax that experts say will kill thousands of Pennsylvania jobs. Sestak even said it should have gone further...

SIEGEL: When I asked Colleen Philbin and eight of her friends what were a couple of words that summed up their reactions to all of this, Democrat Skip Shuda said...

Mr. SKIP SHUDA: Polarizing.

SIEGEL: And Republican Kim Chase said...

Ms. KIM CHASE: Baffling and no middle ground.

SIEGEL: A similar thought from Democrat Kathleen Kaslow, who called negative ads...

Dr. KATHLEEN KASLOW: Very divisive.

SIEGEL: And still more negative judgment from Republican Christy Schug(ph). She called them...

Ms. CHRISTY SCHUG: Demeaning.

SIEGEL: Our hostess, Democrat Colleen Philbin, said the negative ads struck her as...

Ms. COLLEEN PHILBIN: Pessimistic and sad.

SIEGEL: While Republican Tom Lowy managed to be ironic, I think.

Mr. TOM LOWY: I'm glad they're spending disposable income and fueling the economy.

SIEGEL: Democrat Liz Duffy expected more. She called the ads...

Ms. LIZ DUFFY: Disappointing and insufficient.

SIEGEL: While Democrat Peter Burns called them all...

Mr. PETER BURNS: White noise.

SIEGEL: And Republican Shawn Dee Sherrod cited a household authority on the subject.

Ms. SHAWN DEE SHERROD: My daughter always says this about cursing: It's uneducated and unnecessary.

SIEGEL: Those were the summary judgments after a conversation that took three-quarters of an hour.

Psychiatrist Kathleen Kaslow, one of the Democrats, said she found the negative ads insulting.

Dr. KASLOW: And I kind of glazed over. I'm like, oh, another thing that they pull out of context. And okay, so the guy is driving some car, this is the big deal of the campaign that he's driving some car that looks like a little Hyundai?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KASLOW: It just seems ridiculous to me.

SIEGEL: I think it was a Ford, actually.

Dr. KASLOW: Okay, probably. Yeah, of course, good point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: It was a domestic car from what I could see.

Dr. KASLOW: I just find it insulting. And can't we raise the level just a little bit?

SIEGEL: Liz, you were nodding in agreement.

Ms. DUFFY: Yeah. I think the ads show like the great dumbing-down of America, and not giving the viewers enough credit. I will say, you know, having just literally a barrage of advertising right now, you cannot escape it.

I mean, even - I went on the Internet the other day, an ad came up for, you know, when I was researching some archive. I was almost like, wow, look how far we've come. And this group was at least much better than - there are some really awful stuff out right now.

And what I've seen play more than anything is the stuff that just - I mean, here, you know who's saying it. You're attributing it. And that part that - it disgusts me.

SIEGEL: Peter.

Mr. BURNS: I think we all are talking about you have this natural skepticism if any of these claims that are made are true. I really generally don't usually believe them, so therefore the ad doesn't have much power over me.

SIEGEL: And yes, Skip.

Mr. SHUDA: Just, I mean, historically though, what I've seen is the negative ads work. I mean it seems that there's a reaction.

Mr. LOWY: I...

SIEGEL: Tom.

Mr. LOWY: We're told that negative ads work. I've never actually seen any exposition that said this is the negative ad that worked. I mean, in a couple of occasions maybe they work. But I think you're hearing a general groundswell of let's hear some positive things.

SIEGEL: Christy.

Ms. SHUG: This is Christy. And the whole dumbing-down of it is - it is insulting. And it's a waste of our time. Like, we're busy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHUG: I mean, we are busy people. And I want to say if you want to get my attention for 30 seconds, give me something to stop and listen to. Give me something that I'm going to take away. But I'm too busy for that and it's not doing any good.

SIEGEL: That's Christy Shug, a realtor and at-home mother of three.

In the Philadelphia area, you typically see political ads packed together in the station breaks. And, Christy, who's a Republican, says they all start to blur together.

Ms. SHUG: After a while you feel like you could take any man out of that ad and put him in one of the other ads and it would be the same ad. I mean, I think they're just kind of cookie cutter - they discovered what the public will listen to. I mean, the gorier, the nastier, the uglier, the better. I mean, look at reality television, I mean, to see the capacity for what we'll listen to and watch and take in.

SIEGEL: Just a general impression of the guy other is no good and he's not for us.

Ms. SHUG: Yeah.

Mr. BURNS: And, of course...

SIEGEL: Peter.

Mr. BURNS: ...I was trying to memorize them so I'd be prepared.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURNS: And I thought, I mean they all blurred into the same ad. They all just became one negative smorgasbord.

SIEGEL: Tom.

Mr. LOWY: It makes me worried that if the candidate who's not elected yet doesn't have enough control over what's going on around him, and is not responsible for things that other people are doing under, quote, "his auspices," what's going to happen if that person gets elected?

And the more I hear the negative, slanderous, non-official endorsed by the candidate ads that the candidate has to know are going on and he's tacitly approving, what kind of control is he going to bring to his office when he is elected?

SIEGEL: That point won general agreement from our group of nine Democrats and Republicans. Despite federal law that enforces a distance between candidates' campaigns and third-party advertisers, these Pennsylvania voters process them all as speaking, at least tacitly, for the candidate.

And here was another point of general agreement: People want elected officials who will reach across the aisle. The negative ads seem to preclude that.

Skip Shuda, a Democrat and a tech company entrepreneur, says he was undecided.

Mr. SHUDA: For example, in the Senate race. I mean, Toomey is standing for a lot of fiscal conservatism, which I think we need some dose of that. But he didn't come out and say, hey, I'll reach across the aisle; I'll work with the other party; I will look to, you know, find a middle ground. He didn't say that. He was like, these guys are wrong, we're right. And it was like, okay, well, if that's where you're going to go, there are too many other issues that I disagree with you on. And so, he lost my vote in that.

SIEGEL: Colleen.

Ms. PHILBIN: I feel a lot like Skip. What I'm looking for in a candidate has much to do with their ability to collaborate, to find the middle ground. I am looking to move our conversations and our solutions higher than we are right now.

SIEGEL: Kim, (unintelligible).

Ms. CHASE: I just wanted to say that I think that the politicians and the advertisements are directly linked to knowing that our culture is busy, because the snippets that you get and the negative advertising is so then readily available. When you get to the voting poll, a lot of people are just going to pull on the last thing that they've heard.

SIEGEL: And the last thing they've heard may well be something negative about the other guy.

Voters in Wayne, Pennsylvania, Republicans and Democrats, talking last night about negative ads.

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