Double Negative


October 23, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON. — THIS IS THE YEAR that politics is following the rules of grammar: The ad makers are betting that two negatives make a positive. A positive image.

Back in 1988, the attack ad made soulmates out of Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton. Now the counterattack ad is the big gun of the current season.

Across the televised landscape, candidates are charging each other with the most heinous crime of politics: ''going negative.'' Indeed, some of the most negative ads on the home screen hinge on the accusation that the opponent is a sleazy, mud-slinging, dirt-wrestling no-good name-caller.

In North Carolina where Sen. Jesse Helms is conducting almost his entire campaign by TV ad, his handlers have produced a classic of this genre. The ''Woman in the Red Dress'' ad features a supporter accusing opponent Harvey Gantt of unfair ads. ''It bothers me that a politician is running ads just to scare women, just to get votes.'' The sanctimonious ad then goes on to make scurrilous charges of its own against Mr. Gantt.

In Texas, gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams who is lately calling his opponent a liar, ran an ad that began with the lament that ''Ann Richards is running a negative campaign.'' It ended however with an attack on her campaign loans and a question: ''What else is Ann Richards trying to hide?''

In Massachusetts, there is a triple negative on the tube. First James Rappaport attacked Sen. John Kerry. Then Kerry counterattacked. Then Mr. Rappaport produced an ad accusing Senator Kerry of you guessed it, name-calling. This ad ends by sonorously asking what you call a man who calls names. After a pregnant pause, the voice of doom answers: ''Politician.'' Dum-dee-dum-dum.

There is a sort of phony cleanliness being pushed in the second wave of double-negative ads. Instead of taking a shower, they are putting makeup over mud.

The candidates seemed to have learned two things from 1988. Negative ads work. And people hate them.

For a while, it looked like the attacks had worn out their power to wound. In this year's Florida primary, an ad backlash helped Lawton Chiles win the nomination for governor. But now even Mr. Chiles is running an ad that dusts the line between self-defense and counterattack.

For a while it also looked like negative ads had lost some of their ability to land a wild punch. In the aftermath of 1988, newspapers have taken on the job of ''ad police'' analyzing the content of ads, separating fact from fiction.

Among those who urged this on the press was Kathleen Jamieson, now dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and longtime ad watcher. But now she notes a second, and rather perverse, effect of the ad-watch.

It seems that the candidates use the newspaper's analysis of their opponents' ads in their counter-ads. They flash the headlines and quote the reporting. But not always accurately. In total role reversal, journalists can be quoted out of context.

As Ms. Jamieson, who has a file of examples from Texas to Illinois, says, ''People who don't read the newspaper have the illusion of exposure to the credibility of print. The newspapers then say, 'that's not fair' to their own audience but they can't reach the people who are most affected.''

There is nothing wrong with a negative ad if it is, in Ms. Jamieson's definition, ''fair, accurate and contextual.'' Those she calls ''the information elite'' have more help unwinding the claims of candidates than ever before and determining the fairness. But most of the electorate is getting their ''information'' from TV ads. The gap between these two tiers of voters is growing as newspaper readership is slipping.

Rules of grammar aside, two negatives don't create a positive mood among voters. Triple and quadruple negatives leave the ** impression of a level-but-muddy playing field of siblings. One rival yells ''He started it.'' The other counters, ''Did not. He started it.'' The public meanwhile begins to feel like a parent. ''I don't care who started it. Go to your rooms!''

The irony in all this is that mud-slinging and fairness-in-advertising have become more of a focus than war, peace, and the economy in the election of 1990. Ads not only frame and distort the issues -- they've done that for years -- they've become the issues and sometimes the only issues.


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