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Debate: Ban on negative political ads

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Should negative advertising in political campaigns be banned?

Background and context

A negative advertisement is one that focuses upon a rival product, in this case a rival election candidate or party, in order to point out its flaws and to persuade the public not to buy it (or vote for it). Sometimes there is an explicit comparison with the product or candidate in whose interest the ad is being produced, but some of the most effective ads simply attack the opposition without revealing their own sympathies. The perpetual discussion about the impact of negative or ‘attack’ ads on politics gained force during and after the 2004 US Presidential Election, which saw a surprising amount of venom on both sides. This followed some similarly negative campaigns for the 2002 Senate elections; for example, in Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland lost his reelection bid partly thanks to negative ads which associated him with Osama Bin Laden (on the grounds that this war veteran, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, had voted against President Bush's homeland security bills). This topic focuses on whether steps should be taken to ban negative political advertising. Issues of enforcement – fines and levels thereof, pulling of broadcasters' and newspaper licenses, warnings before punishment etc, the body responsible for enforcement – are left to the proposition team.

Contents

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Public discourse: Are negative ads welcome in the public discourse?

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Yes

  • Negative ads typically engage in "personal politics" that lack substantive content: Negative adds seem to typically attack personality traits of a candidate. This may be because this produces the most effective and desirable response from the prospective voter. The problem is that these ads are less valuable than ads that might criticize an opposing candidates political views and stances on issues.
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No

  • Modern politics is much less about ideology than was the case twenty years ago: Given that rival candidates and parties often agree with each other on the big topics of the day, their personalities and abilities are highly relevant to voters trying to decide between them. Political ads, both positive and negative are one important way for voters to get a rounded picture of a candidate. In any case, with your proposal, politics will still be all about the personal – but it will be about presenting candidates as saints, rather than an environment in which both positive and negative opinion can be fairly voiced.
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Freedom: Are advertisements a valuable form of expression?

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Pro

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Con

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Voter opinion: Are negative attack ads welcome by voters?

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Yes

  • Negative attack ads turn the public off to politics: It creates the impression that all politicians are corrupt or incompetent or both. Things aren’t going to improve on their own – in fact, they’ll probably get worse. We ought to stop the nastiness by ruling that only positive advertising is allowed. Only then will people really reengage with politics. Politics should be about issues – about policies and ideology. This rule would help push the debate back to that by stopping personal attacks and requiring people to say something positive about their own position, rather than knocking someone else’s.
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No

  • Despite the negativity, voters still vote, and democracy still functions just fine: There is no evidence that attacks adds really "turn people off to politics", and cause them to abstain from voting. As long as citizens vote, democracy is performing adequately.
  • Within democracies, voters are entitled to know the ‘down-side’ to a candidate, and the other side is obviously well placed to voice it: In effect, the level of scrutiny on politicians is reduced by this proposal, since the ability of voters to hear that scrutiny is curtailed. To stifle one’s ability to voice negative things about a candidate would be to obstruct democracy and limit free speech.
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Defining negativity: Is it possible to adequately define "negative" ads such that they could be banned?

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Yes

  • It is perfectly easy to rule on what is positive and negative: It’s true that some positive ads might be meant to play up the strengths of one candidate precisely because that’s where his opponent is weak – but that’s an awful lot better than the current situation, where most adverts are heavily about the supposed flaws of the other guy.
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No

  • Drawing a line between positive and negative advertising is not easy: When a scandal breaks, is it legitimate to run positive ads about one’s own candidate on that topic? For example, isn’t it ‘negative’ to run a ‘John is a good family man’ advert when news breaks that the other candidate is accused of having an affair with an intern, given that the intention is obviously to draw a comparison with a negative impact about the opponent?
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Prospective politicians: Do negative ads turn off prospective politicians from engaging in politics?

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Yes

  • Many talented individuals decide not to engage in politics because they are put off by negative attack ads: They see that they’ll get paid as much or more without such absurd muckraking, so they don’t go into politics. We should want the best people to go into public office – not merely the best of those able to stomach the way overly aggressive bullies in the media and political worlds will treat them.
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No

  • Politics is a tough game, and those that go into it should expect that: It’s just part of the game. The poor dears do seek publicity, after all – they should accept the inevitable downside of people having negative opinions about them. We should want our politicians to be tough: how much faith would we have if we sent softies to represent our nation’s interests at international summits, or stand up for the needs of voters in the legislature?
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Politicians/Others: Would this ban apply to everyone that might decide to put up a political ad, or just politicians?

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Yes

  • The ban should apply to everyone: It’s true that there are implementation issues on this policy. But at least it would have some effect and go some way in making the political environment more palatable. The Internet would indeed be a big problem but it’s nevertheless still the case that most people get their impression of political candidates from TV and print, which we can police.
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No

  • Would this ban apply to everyone, or just to candidates? Given the ingenuity of political hacks, how would it be policed? Would groups like the Swift Boat Vets for Truth or individuals like Michael Moore still be able to operate negative ads? For that matter, what about the Internet?
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Enforcement: Is the ban feasible?

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Pro

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Con

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See also

External links and resources

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