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US: negative and comparative campaign ads

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US: negative and comparative campaign ads


With control of Congress hanging in the balance, candidates in the US mid-term elections have mounted an all-out attack on each other. And this year’s campaign has been more negative than ever. According to political analysts, that’s because negative and nasty ads work.

“The statistic is that ninety-eight percent of all incumbents are returned to office,” says Hank Scheinkopf, political consultant. “The only way you get them out is by proving they’ve done something wrong and that’s the function of negative and comparative campaign ads.”

And in the game of defeating your opponent, anything goes. The ads use humour and music. They play on the emotions – anything to capture and hold a viewer’s attention for a short but crucial period of time.

“They have music that is haunting,” Hank Scheinkopf, political consultant, says. “They have graphics that kind of grab you almost instantly. The arguments tend to be emotional and people pay attention. And we are a culture of gossip and entertainment and there is nothing more entertaining than a negative political ad. It’s something that voters even kind of look forward to because it changes, it changes things and makes them get more involved.”

Independent studies say the Republicans’ ads are the most effective this year. But pollster, Carroll Doherty, says some go too far. “There have been studies that show people are more attentive to negative ads than they are to positive ones, but I think there is a risk of crossing the line,” Carroll Doherty says. “A few of the ads this year, apparently in the view of some, have crossed the line and had to be taken down.”

Negative campaigning is not a new phenomenon. More than two hundred years ago, America’s founding fathers roughed each other up over their private indiscretions. And since then, politicians have looked to win an advantage with voters by mud-slinging or playing on the public’s fears.

An extreme example is the anti-nuclear commercial, called “daisy girl” used by Lyndon Baines Johnson in his 1964 campaign for President. It shows a young girl with a daisy in her hands, who’s singing is cut off by the sound and image of an explosion. It could be said that the real winners of these mid-term elections are already known. They’re not the candidates but the media companies, receiving millions of euros for airing the negative ads.

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