Friday, November 5, 2010

Frat House Political Ads

I've been going over the swamp of political mailings -- I admit it, I'm a masochist and actually save this garbage through the election season. One thing screams at me: there's got to be a better system than allowing fraternity houses during "beer night" to develop ad campaigns for politicians.

Updated from Nielsen 4:32p: TV viewers in the Cleveland market were exposed to the highest proportion of political TV ads (23.4%) over the last month. Ohio’s capital city Columbus placed a very close second in the ranking with an estimated 23.37% of paid ads bought by political entities. Columbus, Portland, Sacramento, and Seattle rounded out the top five.

We need more grown-ups in the process. Ones who understand there's life after an election and flaming the crap out of an opponent only destroys the process because it makes voters want to vomit.

It's time to hold the frat boys (and girls) who dream up these stupid campaigns accountable. In some sense, that's what happened Tuesday in at least two of the Summit County state representative races.

Brian Williams is and has been an honorable, thoughtful community leader and politician. So has Lynn Slaby. Kristina Daley Roegner cares about her community and wants to work to make it better. So does Mike Moran.

So why can't they articulate the vision instead of spending all their resources to re-define their opponent?

Case in point: the ads targeting Lynn Slaby as pro-NAFTA, can't-wait to unload American jobs overseas, and frothing at the mouth to layoff 40,000 teachers.

The problem with these Columbus-originated attack ads -- remarkably in line with the aggressive personal slash-and-burn "f-bomb" style of Ohio Democratic Party chief Chris Redfern -- is that Summit County voters were already familiar with Slaby. It was common to hear voters both Democrat and Republican observe that the Summit County Prosecutor and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had little to do with NAFTA when it was passed seventeen years ago.

This would have been the time for an adult to step up and remind the out-of-town creative advertising geniuses that voters really aren't that dumb, and they were going after someone people had voted for before, not a blank slate where "defining your opponent" would work.

Do negative attack ads work? Sometimes. Governor Strickland, handicapped by the worst economy in generations, had little choice but to present Congressman Kasich as a Wall Street insider. Where that strategy went astray is when Kasich re-defined the definition by pointing out the Lehman office wasn't on Wall Street but Columbus -- and then hammered his positive "morning in Ohio" message while standing at a crossroads.

Josh Mandel correctly earned the scorn heaped upon him for the despicable ads against Kevin Boyce in the campaign for State Treasurer, misleading voters to think Boyce was Muslim. The outrage -- across the board, mind you -- put Mandel on the defensive personally but he coasted in the election. Did he need to stoop so low to win against such an underfunded competitor? I worry that Mandel -- who led the statewide executive offices with the more than two million votes and the widest margin of victory -- won't heed the danger of just how much he hurt himself in the eyes of people who expected better. The electorate has a long memory when it comes to judging personal character, and in Mandel's case he's already disappointed and demeaned himself in a cakewalk. What would he be like when the contest is truly competitive? Mandel won, but at a cost of defining himself as a candidate who couldn't control his own message at a time when he didn't need to muddy himself or his opponent.

Here's the take Mandel had on the ad in October:

Look to the U.S. Senate contest. Rob Portman didn't need to attack Lee Fisher on a personal level, and set a higher standard in his advertising. Highlight Ohio's job creation record under Fisher was fair game because it reflected on policy and the record. Fisher himself, far behind with nothing to lose by going extreme negative, instead took a higher role even in defeat by staying on issue, tying Portman to trade policies that two years ago would have worked. But he remained on message and even employed humor in the closing days. Lee Fisher may have lost the race, but at least he could look at himself in the mirror the next morning with honor intact.

Would the three Akron issues that lost -- 11, 16 and 17 -- have had a better chance if supporters, funded mostly by Akron's corporations, concentrated not on getting even with opponents but presenting their reasoning to reasonable people? Or has the political discourse sunk to the level where only personal attacks and vituperative rhetoric cuts through the clutter of the voter's mindset to set the issue?

According to their campaign finance filing, Citizens for Akron spent money that came largely from Akron's corporate interests -- led by FirstEnergy, GOJO, Goodyear, Roetzel and Andress, Brouse McDowell, Thomarios -- amassing $86,000 to get that message across. There's an irony that increasing campaign spending limits was helped largely by a campaign funded almost exclusively by corporate campaign contributions.

I can't imagine any of those companies using a similar strategy marketing a new product or service to their customers. In the realm of community service and public debate, however, they willingly underwrote the smear strategy targeting the usual group of critics. Think this type of campaign is employed by these companies when their own names are on the ad?

The Beacon Journal was right, in it's "Covered In Mud" editorial of November 1, to point out:

"It is most disappointing, then, that Citizens for Akron, a group promoting the amendments, has chosen the very low road of personal attacks. In a mailing, ''Busted,'' it dishes dirt on a group of opponents dubbed a ''gang of scoundrels.''

In a political season that has produced its share of tripe and worse, ''Busted'' ranks among the lowest. It is classless. It is cheap. It is irrelevant to the pros and cons of the issues at stake. It does not advance the worthy cause it seeks to promote.

We in the media need to do a better job of holding the political ad fraternity to task for these ads. Voters need to do a better job of holding the candidates and political parties -- and yes, the companies and individuals who write the checks used to slime somebody accountable for smear strategies.

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