2012-01-26 / Commentary

The new rules for negative campaign ads

By Joanna Weiss

Politicians always say they hate negativity, except when they’re calling it something else, like “telling the truth” or “comparing records” or “dropping the pious baloney.”

That’s where, perhaps, the voting public could help. After years of bombardment on our TV screens, we have a decent idea of what negative ads look like. We’ve seen some fine examples in this year’s presidential race. So based on recent ad blitzes, here are some criteria for Warren and Brown to consider:

— No sad children. That means no children wheezing, crying, pouting or looking longingly past the camera. “King of Bain,” the 28-minute anti-Mitt- Romney propaganda film (funded by a super PAC that’s backing Newt Gingrich), features plenty of distressed middle class voters. But no one seems worse off than a boy who gazes, alarmed, at a TV set, presumably because he’s heard the news that K- B Toys is going out of business.

How did they get him to look that way? Did they tell him SpongeBob died? Because no campaign would want to be that cruel.

— No photographs of candidates without lips. Every once in awhile, news cameras catch a candidate sucking in his upper and lower lip — an expression that probably means, “I really could use some Chapstick in this cold New Hampshire air,” but, matched with ominous music, says, “I can’t be trusted.”

A Rick Santorum ad called “ Easy Answer” flips between photos of a grouchy- looking Barack Obama and a lipless Romney. Who needs issues? The correlation alone is damning.

— No voice-overs involving nice ladies saying mean things. It’s an old campaign trick: In the most vicious political ads, use a woman for the voice-over — to blunt the meanness, soften the blow.

A Newt Gingrich ad called “ Changed?” uses a woman to outline Romney’s policy flipflops. “He can’t be trusted,” she purrs, as soft piano music plays in the background. And she must be right, because as she speaks, we see a picture of Romney with no lips.

— No foreign music. Everyone wants to run as an outsider these days, but there’s such a thing as too far outside. In New Hampshire last month, a group of Ron Paul supporters produced an ad attacking Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, by showing Huntsman speaking Mandarin and holding his adopted Chinese baby. Chinese music played in the background, as if to scream, “See? He’s switched sides!”

— No photos of a smiling Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Dick Cheney or George W. Bush. It’s a move designed to invoke maximum horror: Link the current candidate to your favorite political bogeyman.

Restore our Future, a super PAC that backs Mitt Romney, put out a pair of ads attacking Newt Gingrich with images of Obama and Pelosi, looking happy. What were they smiling about? Who cares? It clearly means Armageddon is coming!

So there you go, Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown campaigns: a roadmap for your “People’s Pledge” deal to swear off outsider groups’ negative messages during your contest to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.

This could be useful guide for voters, too. Happy agreement or no, we might as well train ourselves to recognize negative ads, assume they can’t be trusted, and tune out. If everyone stopped listening, maybe those ads would disappear from every campaign — no special agreements or pious baloney required.

Joanna Weiss writes for The Boston Globe.

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