Elections Loom; Now Is the Time for Negative Ads The closing days of most political campaigns traditionally bring the most controversial television ads; this year is no exception. It seems the circumstances are always right for negative ads.
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Elections Loom; Now Is the Time for Negative Ads

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Elections Loom; Now Is the Time for Negative Ads

Elections Loom; Now Is the Time for Negative Ads

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The election is less than two weeks away, in a year when control of the House and the Senate is at stake. In a moment, a report about some of the problems that voters may face on election day. But first, a story about one of those campaign tools that gets rolled out every election year at this time, the shocking campaign ad. Just when you think you've seen it all, political consultants come up with a new way to call their opponent scum.

NPR's Robert Smith has a play by play on the latest mudslinging.

ROBERT SMITH: There're so many good examples of bad taste that it's hard to know where to start. How about Tennessee?

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: Harold Ford looks nice. Isn't that enough?

Unidentified Woman #2: Terrorists need their privacy.

SMITH: The Republicans ran an ad against Democrat Harold Ford so loaded with innuendo that even Ford's Republican opponent denounced it. A blonde bimbo says into the camera -

Unidentified Woman #3: I met Harold at the Playboy party.

Professor JOHN GEER (Vanderbilt University): This makes the Willie Horton ad look like child's play.

SMITH: That's John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who studies the effectiveness of political ads. He calls this one a new low.

Professor GEER: Because here's Harold Ford, an African American candidate, and there's this blonde on the ad saying at the very end in this kind of semi-seductive voice -

Unidentified Woman #3: Harold, call me.

Professor GEER: And winks at the camera. It's raising the race card and playing it through the use of kind of the old style fears about interracial couples, interracial relationships. I've never seen anything like this.

SMITH: The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, spoke with NPR's MORNING EDITION and said he didn't see the racial overtones in the ad. The full interview will air tomorrow morning and Mehlman says that the RNC didn't have a say over the content.

Mr. KEN MEHLMAN (Republican National Committee): I think the ad is one that I wouldn't necessarily have produced but in this particular case, this independent unit did produce it.

SMITH: Even though the ad itself says -

Unidentified Woman #4: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

SMITH: Mehlman's office later called NPR back to say that the ad was going to be taken out of rotation.

Every election year at this time pundits say that politicians have hit a new low with political ads. Well, this year's no exception and Professor Geer says it's because the stakes are so high, the country's so divided, and more importantly -

Professor GEER: Neither party has a lot to run on. The Republicans face huge problems in Iraq and they have problems with immigration, other kinds of issues, and the Democrats don't have a coherent message on things like security or Iraq either. It's an ideal recipe for lots of attack advertising.

(Soundbite of ticking)

SMITH: The Republicans are playing an ad with ticking time bomb and a rogue's gallery of terrorists. It makes you think that a nuclear weapon is going to be exploded on your doorstep. And in an ad that can be described as more breathtaking than negative, the Democrats have Michael J. Fox swaying and twitching with the effects of Parkinson's disease.

Mr. MICHAEL J. FOX (Actor): Stem cell research offers hope to millions of Americans with diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But George Bush and Michael Steel would put limits on the most promising stem cell research.

SMITH: If these and the hundred of local ads like them are to be believed, the politicians in America are tax and spend, sex crazed criminals who want to take medicine away from sick people. But Professor Geer from Vanderbilt says that the ads don't seem to be responsible for Americans' distrust of politicians. In fact, he says, most negative ads do serve a noble purpose.

Professor GEER: Negative ads are underappreciated because they're actually much more substantive than positive ads. If you want more issues, the issues to be more specific, the issues to be documented and the issues to be the important ones to the public, it turns out negative ads have that more than positive ads.

SMITH: With their warm, fuzzy pictures of their families and a vague appeal to values and security. But Professor Geer also notes that negative ads haven't been shown as any more effective than positive ads. In the end, a lot comes down to how much an ad is repeated and how well it grabs your attention, like those annoying late-night ads for that headache remedy.

(Soundbite of television spot)

Unidentified Woman #5: HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead. HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead.

SMITH: A product that might come in useful for TV viewers forced to watch two more weeks of political ads before the election.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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