In today’s Globe and Mail, Clive Veroni hauls out some tired old arguments to defend the partisan hatchet attacks that are known in polite company as ”œnegative political ads.” Mr. Veroni does an admirable and clear-minded job of parading the usual arguments (also heard marching around this weekend on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition). Veroni leads his readers to the conclusion that we should all chill out and stop worrying so much about negative political ads. At worst, the argument goes, they are impolite. At best, they actually rile people up and get them out to the polls. And anything that gets people out to vote… etc., etc., etc.

Here’s the problem with all that: it’s nonsense. The reasons for that are legion, but I’ll keep it simple. All of these commentators make the classic mistake of routinely confusing correlation with cause. That means they see two things happen at the same time and assume (or, let the reader assume) that one of them caused the other. Roosters crow just before sunrise. But it would be a mistake to assume that the roosters cause the sun to rise.

In Veroni’s piece, he takes aim at what he calls the three ”œmyths” of negative political advertising. Let’s look at them in order.

Myth 1: negative ads are new. Veroni repeats and dismisses the apocryphal origin story involving the 1964 ”œDaisy” ad. While you could have a good argument about whether or not this ad is a good example of the genre (I would argue it is not), this was definitely not the first attack ad. As Veroni says, negative political ads have been around since the time of the toga, and likely before. Veroni’s implied conclusion? Negative ads have always been around, so no biggie.

There is a logic problem here, of course. Murder has also always been around but that doesn’t make it any less horrible. The longevity of personal attacks for political gain is not an argument in favour of keeping/ignoring/encouraging them. Moving on.

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Myth 2: political actors use negative ads because they work. Veroni takes issue with this claim and its blanket certainty. He says not only is there no guarantee they will work, they sometimes horribly backfire. As an example he gives the 1993 Tory attack on Jean Chretien, wherein Chretien’s bona fides as a leader were drawn into question because of how he looks and talks. While I agree this was a tasteless and ham-handed entry in the attack ad ouevre, Veroni is wrong to assert that it didn’t work. Just because the Tories were forced to apologize and were subsequently slaughtered at the polls is not evidence of the ad’s failure. There are a million reasons the Tories were slashed down from the biggest majority in Canadian history in 1984 to only two seats in 1993. Veroni needs to offer some proof that the ad was to even partly blame if he wants to make that claim. The two facts, side by side, are not enough. On the contrary, there is lots of research in cognitive and behavioural psychology that might suggest the ad functioned exactly as it was intended to: by, rightly or wrongly, leading people to feel slightly more uneasy about Jean Chretien as an appropriate political leading man. The lesson here: people can chastise the messenger but still take the message to heart. There is lots of evidence this might have been the case with the ”œface” ads.

Finally, Veroni’s Myth #3: negative ads depress voter turnout by turning people off politics. As proof that the opposite might actually be true, Veroni offers a couple of highly selective data points and suggests they have something to do with one another. Factoid #1: There were more negative ads in the US in 2012 than in 2000. Factoid #2: voter turnout went from 50 per cent in 2000 to 55 per cent in 2012. Remember the rooster? Simply putting these two facts side by side suggests there might be a relationship, but it does not mean one causes the other in the way you might think. To his credit, Veroni cites one piece of aging survey research that suggests there is no evidence for negative advertising depressing voter turnout. The problem is, there is very little work out there that tests that theory (full disclosure, this is my area of research). So making a claim that negative advertising conclusively does not harm turnout is not possible at this point. It simply hasn’t been tested enough. But here is why it should be further explored: if you look at the change in voting rates over a period of decades, turnout in Canada has been in steady and significant decline since the early 1960’s. There may be a lot of reasons for this but we should not be so hasty, in the absence of adequate research, to claim that negative advertising is not contributing. There is lots of intriguing evidence to suggest otherwise.

What’s the final takeaway here? When you hear ”œexperts” claiming that negative ads are par for the course and we should all just lighten up and get out to the polls, don’t simply take their word for it. Ask for some proof. Real proof. Not just a couple of facts that look tantalizingly good standing next to one another.

Tim Abray
Tim Abray is an academic, an award-winning communications consultant and a former radio news reporter. Tim's investigation of political systems is informed by 20-years of working with senior government and private sector decision-makers. His main research interest is looking at the effects of political communication on voter behaviour.

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