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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sex, Lies & Political Gridlock - Is Negative Campaigning Endangering Democracy

Thought for the Day: I usually try to avoid sex & politics in my blog, facebook & as a psychologist; however, given the increase in negative campaigning I wonder whether democracy is becoming an endangered species & felt compelled to write about it. Although you may feel compelled to write from a partisan perspective, please refrain from doing so. I have tried to address the problem as a non-partisan psychological commentary, I hope I will inspire you to question what is happening in political campaigning on both sides & to search for creative solutions to the problems addressed.

After an election campaign filled with negativity, I felt a need to encourage people to set aside their differences & join forces behind the government to start fixing the economic crisis that the nation is struggling to overcome. I posted the above photo (which I saw as an olive branch) on my facebook page & on 2 Bellaire High School Alumni groups that I frequent. On my page, people took the post in the way it was intended, liked & shared it 35 times.

On the Bellaire High pages the responses were strikingly different. Around 135 comments & "likes" followed. They have continued to appear daily on the two group pages. To my surprise, the photo & my original comment hoping for people to join together, triggered all kinds of partisan & derogatory comments. It brought up stories of conspiracy theories & mud slinging that I will not repeat. A few people tried to respond to these comments; however, the negative comments continued to come. I merely said that I was taught that regardless of which candidate wins, it is important to find ways to accept the results of the democratic process & find ways to compromise & work together.

Being a psychologist is a blessing but it can also be a curse. I'm not a political analyst, but find myself trying to apply psychological theories to understand the powerful reactions to the photo on facebook. I also began to wonder if the political gridlock in Washington & the divide occurring in our society could be somehow connected to the damaging psychological effects of political advertising.  To do this I did some research on advertising, although it is by no means comprehensive it reflects what experts in the field are saying about political ad campaigns. I encourage you to read some of the articles I reviewed to help understand this complex topic.

America's capitalistic economy relies heavily on advertising.  ($129 Billion on (TV, Print & Online advertizing) in 2011) On the presidential campaigns "this year, according to a fresh report to investors from Needham and Company’s industry analysts, television stations will reap as much as $5 billion—up from $2.8 billion in 2008."  That means that about 15% of the total advertising spenditures in the USA will have gone to TV ads for the presidential election. In 2010, TV ads for House, Senate & gubernatorial elections was $2,870,000. The 2012 spending on these races is expected to grow significantly. Certainly, the numbers alone in the midst of unemployment & recession are unsettling. One wonders how the advertising dollars might improve the economy or education.  However, the content & lack of accountability for it's psychological impact on our society is even more disturbing.

Is it wise to market political leaders as if they were products? It is common knowledge that "sex" & the image of popularity & success sell products. Our greatest presidents, prior to the age of television advertizing were not necessarily handsome or photogenic. Would Abraham Lincoln have been elected on his looks? If his marriage (or the marriages of other great presidents prior to the explosion of television) had been scrutinized would he have been elected? How would the camera or negative ads have treated FDR's physical disabilities? The camera was not kind to Eleanor Roosevelt, but she was one of the most eloquent & influential first ladies our nation has ever had.  In light of their leadership, America might have missed the opportunity to be led by many great leaders if they had been judged by their appearance & not their words & actions.

An even bigger concern for me is the blatant use of lies in political campaigns. With the myriad of ads on both sides & the lack of fact checking by the news media, it often takes months for the truth to come out about ads that influence the outcome of elections. In “Timeless Rules for Advertising and Marketing,” March 26, 2010,, David Ogilvy, advertising icon, called political spots “the most deceptive, misleading, unfair and untruthful of all advertising.”  Robert Spero reports that Ogilvy believes “political advertising ought to be stopped. It’s the only really dishonest kind of advertising that’s left. It’s totally dishonest.” (Robert Spero, The Duping of the American Voter (New York: Lippincott & Crowell, 1980), 4.)

The worst type of political advertising is negative advertising (a form of advertising that is rarely used in commercial advertising). The goal of negative advertising is to put an opponent in a negative light. Negative ads, despite the fact that they are often false, have been found to be highly successful at raising doubts in voters minds about a candidate they may have been leaning towards supporting.  Therefore, it can be tremendously effective, even if it does not generate a single new voter for the candidate who placed the ad. If it pushes the undecided voter not to vote at all, it is seen as a victory for the creator of the ad. I believe, however, that all negative advertising is a defeat for the democratic process.

Psychologically, it is better for a candidate to be on the offensive, rather than on the defensive. So, there is an advantage to a politician to be the first to attack an opponent with a negative ad. Quick response is important as well. The cost of responding to a negative ad continues to increase the cost of political advertising. Therefore, the candidate with the most money has the advantage, regardless of whether the negative ad is true or bogus. As voters, do we want our elected officials to buy our votes by lying about their opponents? Do we want good candidates to lose elections due to false accusations that only see the light of day months after the election?

Posted on Facebook on the day of the election
Not only do negative ads influence the outcome of elections, according to Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols negative television advertising accentuates, "extends and enhances" the problem of citizen apathy. A study by Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar demonstrated that the "main consequence of negative ads is that it demobilizes citizens and turns them off from electoral politics, if not public and civic life altogether." The trend is toward “a political implosion of apathy and withdrawal.” (Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, Going Negative (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 11–12.) Can democracy survive with apathetic citizens? Are we in danger of making people feel that their vote does not matter & that their leaders are not trustworthy? Is negative political advertising simply propaganda encouraging prejudice & dividing our society?

Many people assume that the news media will "fact check" the ads & inform the public about the "truth."  Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, reporters tend to report on the negative controversial ads as sources for news stories. McChensey & Nichols report that one study found that only 1% of TV news campaign stories critique any political advertising. If a candidate wants air time on the news programs, they need to buy ads & make them controversial. Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols conclude that "television journalism has all but abandoned its duty to provide some sort of balance or corrective to political advertising... They are part of the problem, not the solution."

As far as I know, we know very little about the residual effects of being bombarded with negative ads. As a psychologist, this effect is of concern to me.  Are all Americans, Democrats & Republicans, having been exposed to negative & untruthful ads continuing to act as if the ads are true. Could this play a part in the gridlock we see in Washington? Does the conscious & unconscious residue from the powerful negative ads continue to encourage both sides to be polarized against one another? Has it led to increased apathy & distrust of our leaders on the part of voters & politicians alike? CNN reported from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, that the 2012 voter turnout was 57.5% of all eligible voters, compared to 62.3% who voted in 2008 and 60.4% who cast ballots in 2004. Voter turnout was only slightly higher than in 2000, the turnout rate was 54.2%. An estimated 126 million people voted in the 2012 election. Ninety three million eligible citizens did not cast ballots. Although the depressed economy may also have led to lower voter turnout, is negative ad campaigning making it worse? For democracy to work, all citizens need to be involved, educated & believe in the process. As negative advertizing budgets have increased, gridlock, polarization of politics & apathy of many voters have also increased.

If the advertising community itself believes political advertising should be stopped, should we not at least demand more scrutiny of political ads accuracy & accountability? We have regulated advertising for products & have magazines to help consumers choose between products. However, there is no "Consumer Reports" magazine to help voters check the accuracy of political ads. I don't have the answers, but the questions are important ones for us to address regardless of our political leaning if we are to find a way to address this important issue.

As always, I would love to hear your opinions & ideas to find ways to increase respect, end the gridlock & find ways to make sure both the democratic process thrives & our great nation prospers.


Jim Simpson said...

What an enlightened perspective on the process we call political campaigning... I would wish that every one in America should take time read this. Perhaps our people might then take the time to fact check ads and sound bites to see what is real, and what is just a strategic move in this elaborate game of media driven posturing.

Barbara Lavi said...

Thank you Jim. I hope people do start taking the time to fact check or demanding that the news media do & that politicians make sure that ads are checked for accuracy. It may require that the public demand more accountability on the part of politicians. There are truth in advertising laws we may need them for political campaigns as well.