Attack ads may distort message

by N.F.S. Knight | 11/7/00 6:00am

On the eve of election day, assistant government professor Lynn Vavreck criticized the increased role of independent political attack ads in the current presidential campaign in a lecture last night at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

"Sensational independent expenditure ads aired against presidential candidates during the election season are bad for the process because they distract voters from the debate's actual content," Vavreck said.

Presidential campaigns have lost control of their core messages because of the sensational attack ads broadcast on television, she said.

She linked popular opposition to such ads to the growing support for campaign finance reform laws that political figures such as Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold have proposed. Vavreck said that the ads "turn people off" because they are negative and because the groups that pay for them often choose to remain anonymous.

For example, in 1988, an independent group paid for the famous attack ad that accused the then-Democratic presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis of issuing a weekend furlough pass to convicted murderer Willie Horton, who went on to stab, rape and murder a woman during his furlough.

The ad was quickly taken off the air because of its sensational content.

Similarly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recently aired an ad attacking Texas Governor George W. Bush for vetoing hate crimes legislation.

The ad featured the daughter of James Byrd, a black man killed by three whites in Texas, saying that Bush's veto was "like my father being killed all over again."

The surge in anonymous ads has led some to propose requiring all independent groups paying for political ads to disclose the full nature of their organizations, Vavreck said.

This summer, President Clinton signed a bill into law that requires the non-for profit groups paying for political ads to disclose who they are.

Yet public opposition and piece-meal reforms have not halted the increase in such advertising.

According to Vavreck, in 1996, the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns spent a combined total of about $93 million on television advertisements in the six weeks leading up to the election.

That amounted to 75 percent of all campaign spending by both parties.

"Independent expenditure ads are a new thing and they are becoming really dominant," Vavreck said.

One student at the lecture, Jon Martin '02, expressed doubts about the effectiveness of campaign finance reform legislation that requires full disclosure.

"I think there's a lot wrong with the way it is right now, but I don't know that full disclosure could make that much of a difference," he said.

Another student said negative advertising can have benefits."Negative advertising works. If you don't advertise negatively and your opponent does, then you're missing out," he said.