As long as negative political advertising works, it will be used

June 07, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The voters don't like negative campaigns in general or negative television commercials in particular. But politicians, including both the White House and the Bob Dole campaign, are still ''going negative.''

The reason is, of course, that negative commercials usually work, even if they may contribute to alienation in the electorate. The key is whether such ads have at least a kernel of factual support for the claims they make.

The recent exchange in the presidential campaign is a classic illustration of the difference.

The Republicans saw an opening when President Clinton's lawyer cited the protection against lawsuits given to members of the armed services on active duty as part of his case for putting off Paula Jones' suit against the commander-in-chief. It might have been a valid legal argument, but it was a political gaffe of the first order.

The Republicans quickly produced a television spot ridiculing Mr. Clinton for seeking the protection of a uniform that he avoided wearing when he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. Their argument may have been technically incorrect, but it was politically effective enough that the president's lawyer felt obliged to amend his filing. The key in this case was that Mr. Clinton has always been vulnerable on anything involving the military because of that Vietnam history.

At the same time the Democrats offered a classic example of a negative commercial that backfires. They produced a spot assailing Senate Majority Leader Dole for quitting the Senate when there was so much unfinished business on the national agenda.

That one clearly would not fly. Calling Bob Dole a quitter is clearly ridiculous considering his history in recovering from his war wounds after World War II and his 35-year career in Congress. The result was a flood of angry reaction not only in the press but from some of Mr. Dole's Democratic colleagues in the Senate. The ad was quickly scuttled.

In fact, however, neither commercial was given widespread distribution on television. They got the most attention by being -- shown on news programs on television after being made available by their producers.

This tactic has become a common one in recent elections. A campaign will produce a spot, then hold a news conference to show it to the press, which dutifully carries the spot as news without any cost to the campaign except production expenses.

Free advertising

Sometimes such spots are run on CNN, where time costs less because the audience is smaller. Then the campaign enjoys the fringe benefit of seeing the spots used as ''news'' on ABC, NBC or CBS, where the expense of running them as commercials might be prohibitive.

Some commercials are previewed and never run anywhere thereafter. The campaigns will claim they intend to spend ''up to $300,000'' or some such figure on the spots -- when they haven't got a nickel to buy the time. And the press routinely falls for it.

Both newspapers and broadcast news operations recognize that political ads often can be important and even decisive in a campaign. In the last six or eight years it has become routine for major newspapers and television stations to dissect commercials for accuracy and fairness. They will point out where claims are being inflated or are simply inaccurate.

But campaign strategists have discovered that these analyses don't necessarily mean the negative spots are not effective with voters, not many of whom are willing to read the fine print to determine their validity. The producers of these commercials also have found ways to suggest documentation for their charges that may make the critical analyses of them seem to be quibbling and nitpicking.

Negative campaigns and commercials have become a significant factor in the alienation that keeps many potential voters from casting their ballots. They also may discourage otherwise highly qualified people from running for public office if they have anything in their backgrounds that might qualify as the topic for such commercials.

But politics is a pragmatic business. If negative commercials work, they will be used.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

! Pub Date: 6/07/96

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