Negative campaign ads reach record level

Posted at: 11/07/2012 11:32 PM
By: Dan Levy

ALBANY - The end of the political campaign season and the nation breathe a collective sigh of relief, that for a while at least, we won't be subjected to an endless barrage of tv campaign ads.

And in case you didn't notice, never before have Americans been subjected to the level of negative ads as this year. According to a political advertising analysis done by the Wesleyan Media Project, Americans have been subjected to more than $800 million worth of presidential campaign ads alone, with more than 80% of them, they say, negative.

It's one of the things in American life that's not only unappealing, it's unavoidable. Over the last several months in this country, more than one million presidential campaign ads alone have run somewhere, the overwhelming percentage of them were negative.

"They are fed up understandably," said Skidmore College political scientist Ron Seyb. "It's like a jackhammer pounding their head every day between five and eleven P.M. and there was just no respite from it.

Dr. Seyb says candidates run them, first, because there's no penalty for it, but secondly, because they work, especially on so-called low involvement voters, people who don't follow campaigns very closely and get their information from the ads.

"Handlers often times do what works," Seyb says, "They're in the business of winning campaigns."

But Professor Seyb also points out negative ads can also backfire, by creating hyper-polarization and hyper-partisanship.

"For somebody who actually is genuinely undecided or genuinely independent, they don't see a home for themselves in either of these parties," Seyb opines. "They see both parties as being reprehensible and that causes them to demobilize out of the political process."

Those who remain in the political process will undoubtedly continue to get bombarded by ads in which, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, "distortion is the norm; deception is an art form; and accuracy is as rare as a found artifact."

"If we stay on this same campaign trend line, it's just going to become more and more acute as we move through the next election cycle," Seyb says.

The Washington Post reports that President Obama spent $457 million on campaign ads, compared to $356 million for Mitt Romney. The Post also reports 85% of the president's ads were negative, while 91% of Romney's were negative.

For that survey, negative ads were defined as those ads that mention the candidate's opponent in them.