The U.S. election is over, and with it, the months-long bombardment of campaign ads. But as life gets back to normal for American TV viewers – especially in swing states such as Ohio and Colorado – some in the advertising industry believe the regular commercials now returning to the airwaves are reckoning with a nasty legacy left behind by those political ads.
Burt Manning, former chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and chairman emeritus of J. Walter Thompson, made waves in the 1990s by suggesting that election ads were hurting his industry's credibility with a loosey-goosey approach to the truth. After watching this year's election cycle, his fears have intensified.
"I relate the decline in Americans' trust and acceptance of general advertising to their violent dislike of mudslinging political advertising," Mr. Manning said in an interview Friday. "It's more of a problem now, because there's more of it."
Last week, the number of U.S. election ads aired since June 1 passed the 1-million mark, up 39 per cent from the 2008 election, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, an academic study tracking campaign advertising. The study also found that most of that advertising was negative.
Mr. Manning believes negative ads can be informative, but said the misleading nature of many attack ads breeds skepticism and animosity toward all advertising. Other chairmen of the association group have raised similar concerns. In 1984, John O'Toole said political ads were "giving advertising a bad name." In 1992, chair Alex Kroll said: "We must stop politicians from ruining our reputation."
Their views are counter to some research, suggesting that an electorate bombarded with political ads can actually come to see commercial advertisements as a welcome relief, and buoys their view of advertising in comparison.
The goal of political ads makes them a very different breed: unlike with a product, which has time to build a brand or make up for missed sales targets in a following quarter, political advertisers have just one shot to sell their product. On election day, it's win or lose. The political consultants Mr. Manning has spoken to say that this means they will send out any message they can to sway opinion and reach that goal. Those same consultants say that any attempt to curb political ads would amount to a limitation on free speech.
"That justifies some of the worst kinds of advertising you've ever seen," Mr. Manning said.
For example, Mr. Manning cited the infamous "Willie Horton" ad used against Michael Dukakis during the 1988 election. It was criticized for playing upon racial tensions, but also for linking Mr. Dukakis to prison weekend furlough programs in his state that were actually instigated by the previous administration. Mr. Manning also points to the blatantly false ad run in the Tennessee senatorial campaign in 2006. In the ad, a blonde woman says she met candidate Harold Ford at a Playboy party.
During this presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was criticized for a misleading ad in which he suggested that Chrysler would move Jeep production from the U.S. to China.
Part of the problem, Mr. Manning said, is that political ads are not vetted by a self-regulatory body the way that commercial ads are, allowing the kinds of misbehaviour for which companies would be heavily penalized.
"I don't see how anybody can be exposed to all of this advertising, and not have it affect your view. It's not good for advertising in general," he said. "I'd love to have a law, quite honestly, that says if advertising is patently false you're going to be penalized for it. … Why can't we do with political advertising what we do in commercial advertising?"