Political Attack Ads: Conducive to Free Democracy or to Voter Apathy?

by coffeebean on April 22, 2017 - 5:35pm

Advertising in political campaigns holds an essential role in democratic elections founded on these principles of public communication. In today’s digital era where broadcasting outlets permeate society, political ads have grown into an ever-more powerful tool with an unprecedented capacity to shape, or tamper with, public opinion. To that effect, it seems as though politicians are willing to go to increasingly greater lengths to get ahead in this race of reputation and image. Negative ads aiming to target and vilify opponents are gradually becoming a political norm, and the widespread perception of political marketing is seen with a newfound distaste. With tactics ranging from far-fetched comparisons to phrases contrived and re-framed out of context, these “smear ads” raise the question of where to draw the ethical line.


While advertisements that promulgate falsehoods or defamatory remarks would undoubtedly fail the categorical imperative, other borderline cases present a more difficult issue. Take the instance of Mitt Romney’s 2011 ad “Believe in America”, which aimed to showcase Barack Obama’s failure to fix the economy through cutting and pasting clips of the former president taken out of context to imply a different meaning. The video played a recording of Obama declaring: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose”, a statement he originally said to critique a quote made by Senator McCain’s campaign in 2008 (Romney for President Inc. 2011; The New York Times 2011). Although the actual footage of Obama was unchanged, the ad distorted the implication of his phrase in a misleading and subversive manner.


Comparatively, Hillary Clinton’s ad, “What He Believes”, showcased Donald Trump in a harshly unflattering light by compiling a series of controversial remarks he has said about women in the past, including the confession that he "can’t say" he respects women (Hillary Clinton for America, 2015). The video also refers to the sexual allegations against Trump and concludes with the slate: “Anyone who believes/says/does what he does is unfit to be president” (Hillary Clinton for America, 2015). Similarly, while the content of this advertisement is factually true, the negative tone and emphasis towards Trump’s vices evoke a threatening image of him.


Despite the malicious nature of these campaigns, some argue their moral function in a democratic political system built on maxims of free discourse and transparency. From a Deontological perspective, people are duty-bound to honour the principle of free speech and welcome a multiplicity of viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas (Banker, 843). If moral limitations were to be set on political advertisements, this diversified exchange of ideas, information, and opinions would be "diluted" (Banker, 843). This argument contends that these comparative ads serve an ethical function of shedding light on unpleasant truths, thus ensuring that citizens can make a more informed vote (Banker, 845). This point is supported by the Deontological principle of respecting rational beings within a democratic system that calls for critical thought from all participants. In fact, revelations of these advertisements can help hold politicians accountable for their past actions and raise important questions, which further promotes logical reasoning (Penn). This theory can apply to Clinton’s ad "What He Believes", in which legitimate doubts about Trump's views on women drawn from the video can contribute to rational and productive political discussion. Ultimately, the case for the morality of smear ads holds on the notion that they are a staple of democracy, allowing voters, instead of censors, to make rational judgements about candidates (Penn).


The argument against ethical negative campaigns can be justified through Virtue Ethics, a framework emphasizing character traits of agents as moral role models. From this standpoint, collective morality can be grasped through emulating other virtuous individuals, such as political authority figures, serving as exemplars. In the case of “comparative” smear ads, the opposite effect takes place. Through vigorously drawing attention to only the vices of these political agents, and dismissing their virtues, these negative campaigns set immoral models for the rest of society, which can create destructive outcomes.


To that effect, there is a strong Teleological argument that ads that emphasize only vices can provoke apathetic behaviours among voters and diminish the spirit of democracy these campaigns are meant to promote. According to Shanto Iyengar and Markus Prior, the negativity surrounding these campaigns may have a demoralizing effect on the public, which can deter them from voting at all (Iyengar, Shanto and Markus Prior). They argue that the disheartening tone of these campaigns is designed to dissuade undecided voters rather than to encourage them to shift their vote across party lines (Iyengar, Shanto and Markus Prior). In fact, political consultants have freely admitted that a central objective of these negative ads is to prevent “soft supporters” from voting on election day (Banker, 844). Unfortunately, this proves an effective tactic, as there is evidence that these efforts play a substantial role in decreasing confidence in political institutions and voter turnout (Banker, 844). This rise in public cynicism ultimately undermines the summum bonum of democracy, as indicated in the decreased political participation prompted by these ads.


Furthermore, the questionable strategies used in these campaigns challenge the idea that they facilitate transparency so long as their content is unaltered. In many cases, such as Mitt Romney’s ad “Believe in America”, factual material is manipulated out of context and presented inaccurately to the public. While many individuals and organizations work to gauge the credibility of these campaigns, these ads can nevertheless work subconsciously to sway public opinion (Lariscy). Ruthann Lariscy argues that these dangerous implications frequently occur because this information is processed both actively and passively, which includes when people are inattentive, distracted, and not thinking particularly rationally (Lariscy). This effect is further intensified with the notion that when recalling information, people tend to generally remember the content and not its source, which means that this implication also extends to those more rationally conscious of dubious information (Lariscy).

While considering the ethical role of negative political advertisements is not clear-cut, investigating this topic is critical to understanding how to morally operate in a democracy established under the idea of free communication. Although the Deontological approach to this issue brings up compelling points about the democratic value of these campaigns, a closer inspection of the matter reveals that they can instead work towards the opposite effect. Campaigns that re-contextualize information can be misleading and subversive to the importance of human rationality. Similarly, the apathetic behaviours induced by overly-negative advertisements prove damaging to democratic ideals of political participation. While showcasing negative facts about politicians can be an important factor in rational decision-making, over-advertising their vices is not morally justified. Ultimately, it is important to bear in mind that setting ethical limitations on negative political campaigns does not necessarily undermine the notion of the marketplace of ideas. Instead, this exchange can rather be facilitated through other, more positive and socially productive, means.





Works Cited


Mittromney. “Believe In America.” Youtube, Romney For President Inc., 21 Nov. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3a7FC0Jkv8. Accessed 20 Apr. 2017.


Crockett, Emily. “Hillary Clinton's brutal new ad uses Trump's "pussy" comments against him.” Vox, 1 Nov. 2016, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/1/13486968/clinton-ad-trump-sexu.... Accessed 21 Apr. 2017.


Iyengar, Shanto, and Markus Prior. “Political Advertising: What Effect on Commercial Advertisers.” Stanford Univeristy, June 1999, web.stanford.edu/~siyengar/research/papers/advertising.html. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.


Penn, Mark. “The Case for Negative Campaign Ads.” Time, 23 May 2012, ideas.time.com/2012/05/23/the-case-for-negative-campaign-ads-2/. Accessed 20 Apr. 2017.


Banker, Steve. "The Ethics of Political Marketing Practices, the Rhetorical Perspective." ["negative political advertising"]. Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 11, Nov. 1992, pp. 843-848. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/BF00872362.


Edsall, Thomas B. “The Reinvention of Political Morality.” The New York Times, 5 Dec. 2011, campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/the-reinvention-of-political-morality/?_r=0. Accessed 20 Apr. 2017.


Banker, Steve. "The Ethics of Political Marketing Practices, the Rhetorical Perspective." ["negative political advertising"]. Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 11, Nov. 1992, pp. 843-848. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/BF00872362.


Hillary Clinton. “What He Believes.” YouTube, Hillary For America, 1 Nov. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oy8HRdlLGCQ. Accessed 20 Apr. 2017.


Lariscy, Ruthann. “Why negative political ads work.” CNN, 2 Jan. 2012, www.cnn.com/2012/01/02/opinion/lariscy-negative-ads/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.


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