Political Ads: Some Good, Some Bad, Some Ugly.

There’s just over a week to go until Election Day and once again much of the campaigning is negative. It’s discouraging. It’s unpleasant. But who can we blame for it? The political consultants who recommend it? The politicians who agree to it? Or the voters who respond to it? All three, I guess. 

Two years ago, a former Hawaii governor, Ben Cayetano, ran for mayor of Honolulu with a one-issue campaign: he was opposed to Honolulu’s about-to-be-built transit system and, if elected, he promised to kill it. A coalition of business interests and labor unions ran a vicious anti-Cayetano campaign attacking Ben personally, accusing him of corruption among other things. Cayetano lost and, thankfully, the long-overdue transit system is finally under construction. Ben Cayetano was 100% wrong on the transit issue, but he is a decent guy and was quite a good governor.  And that ad campaign was a disgrace.

In my professional career, my firm created advertising for quite a few political campaigns and I’m proud to say that none of my politician-clients ever asked us to produce anything like the ugly stuff that’s being run in so many of the campaigns on the mainland.  Yes, from time to time we did produce TV and radio spots critical of the opponents, but we always tried to do it with humor.

For example, a big aggressive guy named Orson Swindle ran for the U.S. House against my good friend, Neil Abercrombie, then the incumbent congressman. Swindle was a newcomer to Hawaii with no sensitivity for the local culture and we exploited that in our TV spot. It opened on the sweet, cherubic faces of pre-school kids … kids of all the various races living in this melting pot of ours. As the camera passed slowly from one child to another, a soft gentle female voice told viewers that “. . . as different as these beautiful keiki (children) may be, they all have one thing in common. They have all lived in Hawaii longer than Orson Swindle.”  And the kids all burst into raucous laughter and began chanting “Abercrombie back to Congress!” The spot made the point, people loved it, and Neil won re-election by a wide margin. Negative? Sure … but not mean spirited.

Each new political cycle seems to yield TV ads that are more extreme than the previous election year … accusing the target candidate of such callous and egregious actions that to discerning voters the ads are simply not credible. But they also work, because they are deliberately feeding bad information to uninformed voters. And that may be the biggest sin of all.