Stanescu-Bellu: Death to Attack Ads

Political ads do not foster meaningful connections with constituents.

by Sofia Stanescu-Bellu | 11/3/16 12:15am

For the last few weeks, I have been unable to open a YouTube video without seeing an attack advertisement for or against New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte. I can’t watch Buzzfeed in peace without seeing, yet again, why I should or should not vote for the Republican senator. If the purpose of those ads was to sway my opinion, they fell short by a wide margin. Regardless of where I stand on the political spectrum, being inundated with pointless ads isn’t going to make me more likely to vote in a certain direction — if anything, it will make me incredibly annoyed at hearing the same propaganda over and over again. Why are billions of dollars spent each election cycle on pointless ads that have been proven to only slightly, if at all, sway the election in a candidate’s favor?

An extremely cheesy video featuring dramatic music, unflattering pictures of a candidate and a somber voice describing said candidate’s numerous flaws is a complete waste of money. Political attack advertisements lack effectiveness because they are placed on almost every media platform and because they portray the political candidates as monsters. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, good old-fashioned television — you name it, and it’s probably filled with political ads. The ads are obviously intended to reach a specific demographic, but the constant torrent of ads is just not effective. A recent study concluded that political attack ads do more harm than good because they promote a general distrust of the United States government. The tendency of such advertisements to paint political candidates as nefarious crooks intent on ruining America in order to pad their pocketbooks exacerbates voters’ distrust of government.

Instead of suffering through the incessant negative advertisements, people like me, who are sick of seeing presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump bash each other in commercials, immediately press the “SKIP AD” button or change the channel. Prospective voters may even decide to not vote to spite the candidates whose ads they couldn’t escape for two months, if not more. In both cases, the advertisement is not effective because the viewer avoids it altogether and sticks to his or her own opinions about which candidate is better. In the worst-case scenario, he or she don’t vote at all. Ads simply don’t buy votes.

It’s time for campaigns to reverse a long tradition of political attack advertisements and head in a new direction. Maybe attack ads were effective 30 years ago, when fewer people distrusted the government and ads weren’t as pervasive as they are now, but the times have changed. We live in a world where human interaction is becoming increasingly limited. Our lives are revolving less and less around meaningful human interaction and more around fleeting experiences on our devices: likes on Instagram, stories on Snapchat and friends on Facebook. Political attack ads are just another example of impersonal interaction. Instead of the candidates making an effort to campaign across the country and truly interact with voters, they are content with hiring some filmmaker to create a short video where they critique their opponent.

Frankly, I don’t want to hear why one candidate is worse — I want to hear what makes the other one better. I want to hear about the positive changes a candidate has accomplished and how they want to enact change during their time in office. Telling me that so-and-so got millions of dollars from an oil company doesn’t tell me why I should vote for the other candidate; it just tells me that their opponent is corrupt. Maybe that is a good enough reason to not vote for someone, but have we really gotten to a point where we’re only voting for a candidate because their opponent has done some shady business deals?

Look at Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Regardless of your political views, we all can agree that Sanders really challenged the norm this election cycle and managed to connect with his voters. As a result, he won a lot of support from demographics usually underrepresented in the voting pool. Yes, he did spend the most on ads this election cycle, but his support was largely based on his vision and charisma, on his effort to connect with a marginalized group that candidates often fail to relate to — not on the ads he aired. Clinton and Trump both spent around the same amount as Sanders on ads, but their support base is volatile and both candidates have an issue connecting with the general public. If they were to have dropped out of the race before the primaries, their support would not have stayed with them, whereas Bernie’s is still going strong because he was able to polarize the country.

I would like the candidates to show the public why they should be elected, and that’s not going to be done in a political attack ad. It’s done at campaign rallies, in town halls and in meetings with individual people — it’s a genuine effort to get to know their constituents and demonstrate to them that they have the skills, the passion and the drive to do what needs to be done to make their lives better.

It’s time candidates stopped treating Americans like a herd of sheep that will immediately swing its vote after seeing a short, biased digital ad. Ads, especially attack ads, are impersonal and ineffective, and the billions of dollars spent on them would be much better used elsewhere. Candidates should make an effort to interact more with voters and show them that they, too, are human — that they’re relatable and not just another rich person living in a gilded cage. Meaningful interaction is what will make a difference in an election.

Candidates, it’s time to stop with the political ads and move toward genuine human connections with voters. It’s exhausting to watch ad after ad of impersonal statements in a world built on the impersonal.