With midterm elections right around the corner, the onslaught of campaign ads have filled what seems to be every commercial slot on television. Every year, negative advertisements increase, overtaking positive and abstract ads. These campaign ads focus more on personally attacking one’s opponent than actually talking about actual policy goals.
Recently, a campaign ad aired against Democratic candidate Randy Bryce, who is running for the first congressional district of Wisconsin to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville. In the ad, Bryce’s brother, James, tells viewers that he will be voting against his brother this upcoming election.
This is one of a few political ads that have aired this year where brothers and sisters of a candidate speak out against their sibling and claim they will vote for his adversary, another deep family conflict put out for the world to see.
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Bryce’s mother, Nancy Bryce, was deeply saddened by the ad James put out against Randy.
“They didn’t consider a mother’s pain at seeing her children used as tools in a political fight, splashed with millions of dollars of ads across the airwaves,” she said. It has become abundantly clear that political ads are becoming more personal than ever before.
Ultimately, politicians run attack ads because they work for a variety of reasons. Researcher Joan Phillips said people “pay more attention to negative information … it’s more salient, it scares us, and we’re more likely to remember it.” She made the analogy that it is similar to how one is more likely to watch the news during a hurricane than on a beautiful day. People watch because it grabs their attention.
It’s worth noting these ads have grown in accordance with the polarization of the nation’s two major parties. In today’s world of petty name-calling in politics, attack ads feed off of the hostile energy already circulating. In a political climate that finds itself in the middle of a hyper-partisan tug-of-war, these advertisements only further the frustration and fear of America’s electorate and its representatives in the state house.
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Negative ads get a lot of media time. According to one study, journalists started to pay attention to negative ads more in the 1988 presidential election. Specifically, they began to focus on negative advertising. As a result, politicians began to alter their advertising, opting to shift their focus towards negative ads because it helped gain them attention in the media. Regardless of how people felt about the ads, everyone knows there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Yet negative attack ads add nothing to the greater political discourse. Disparaging a candidate’s character takes time away from discussing political issues and slows progress. We do not elect officials only for them to defame others. We elect them to discuss solutions to pressing social and political issues. Advertising should reflect that.
It would be nice to go back to the age of reason, where people and politicians alike could have disagreements about policy, but still, have respect for each other. Instead of focusing on who can create a wittier advertisement attacking their opponent, it is more important to focus on actual policy differences that will help constituents and bring prosperity to the state.
Although negative ads have proven to be effective in helping candidates succeed, their existence siphons wisdom and efficiency from the greater dialogue. At the end of the day, a politician’s goal should be to make positive social and political change — attack advertisements don’t do that. Instead, polarization and attack ads feed off of each other, creating a snowball effect that has grown tremendously in recent years. Even though this trend shows no signs of slowing down heading into midterms, voters should be aware of the damage they cause and the progress they hinder.
Mitch Rogers ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in economics.