On Thursday afternoon Burt Manning, chairman emeritus of the Advertising Educational Foundation, came to the Science Center to talk about the influence of political advertising on public discourse today. Manning cited the rise in negative political advertising in recent years as a reason for “the decline in credibility and effectiveness of advertising” as an industry. He said these ads, which he called “nasty, negative, sleazy, mudslinging stuff,” are unfortunately becoming the norm in political campaigns because of viewers remember them more than positive ads.
Manning began his presentation by showing a series of advertisements for products, almost all of which were vulgar and sexualized and which Manning said would have been viewed as totally inappropriate just ten years ago. He then went on to show specific negative political ads. The first of these ads, from this year’s campaign, was an ad against Harold Ford, Jr., the Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee.
This ad, which Manning termed “absolutely vile,” featured a white woman claiming that Ford, an African-American, made sexual advances towards her. Manning claimed that this ad “plays to the worst prejudices” of people and is “playing the race card” in an unacceptable manner. While the advertisement has received much negative media attention, it has seemingly been effective, as Ford’s poll numbers dropped by eight points after the ad was released.
Manning them proceeded to show two infamous negative ads from earlier races. The first of these ads, from the 1988 presidential election, featured George H.W. Bush claiming that Michael Dukakis permitted William Horton, a convicted murderer, to commit further crimes by allowing Horton a weekend pass out of prison. The advertisement was entirely misleading, as Dukakis had little or no influence over Horton’s weekend pass, but nevertheless it helped to brand voters with the image of Dukakis as “soft on crime.”
The second infamous advertisement shown by Manning was the notorious “Daisy” ad that aired during the 1964 presidential election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. This ad, which features a young girl picking flowers juxtaposed with images of a nuclear bomb exploding, implied that if elected, Goldwater would cause a nuclear war. While the ad never explicitly mentions Goldwater by name, it has nonetheless become a watershed moment in the history of political advertising. Manning then contrasted this advertisement with one of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads, which he said would be too positive to make an impact on contemporary audiences.
Manning concluded his presentation by claiming that negative advertising has cheapened political discourse as a whole and has permitted coarse language to enter the public sphere. As an example, he cited Vice President Dick Cheney telling Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to “go f**** yourself” after Leahy asked Cheney a critical question about Halliburton.
Manning then gave an impassioned plea to youth to reclaim political discourse by using the Internet to connect voters and reclaim the political landscape from negative advertising and insults. He said that if youth voted in higher numbers, they could have a huge influence on the direction of American policy. All the tools are available, and someone just has to take the initiative to change political dialogue in this country. As Manning said, “it’s all in the hands of the young people.”