I was going through some of my oldest files built up over 20 years of teaching public relations writing and case problems. I came across a newspaper ad I thought I had lost; I’m glad I found it.
“Don’t call it advertising” was the headline; the ad ran on November 9, 1994, the day after the mid-term elections and was signed by Ketchum Advertising, one of the country’s major advertising agencies of that period.
Jerry Della Femina, who holds legendary creative status in the industry, wrote the copy. In it, he highlighted several of the more egregious negative political commercials in what he termed “one of the dirtiest elections in the history of this century.”
“This is filth,” the copy read, “political filth that is not advertising and shouldn’t be dignified by being called advertising.” Ketchum called on people in advertising, broadcasting, publishing and business to “stand up together and say ‘Stop.’ Stop the character assassination. Stop the lies. Stop the ugliness. And, above all, stop calling what you’re doing advertising.”
The ad implored the broadcasting and publishing communities to hold political advertising to the same standards as commercial advertising, noting that if a corporation ran ads akin to political ads, its executives would face fines and jail, hounded by the same politicians whose ads made up that year’s political filth. The ad also asked ordinary citizens to urge politicians to rein in the ugly negative ads.
It’s now 14 years later and, unfortunately, not much has changed. Most political campaigns and the ads that support them are negative, containing much of the same dirt that Ketchum’s ad decried in 1994. Why did Ketchum’s plea for change go unheeded? Because negative political ads work – “attack ads” by individual candidates or 527 groups, whether local, regional or national, make an impact, or so at least some of the research tells us.
They also foster another other outcome – voter disgust and disillusionment with the electoral system As I’ve said in class, using two students as candidates, “If Mandy and Amanda are running against each other, and Mandy’s ads call Amanda a crook, while Amanda’s ads call Mandy an idiot, eventually the voter targeted by these assaults comes to a conclusion: Let’s see; I have a choice between a crook and an idiot. I think I’ll stay home.” The result: some of the lowest overall voter turnouts of any democracy in the world.
Because it works, negative political campaigning and paid media will no doubt continue. But let’s repeat the plea: Don’t Call It Advertising.