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Are negative spots in decline?

Published Oct. 18, 2005

It is a small breakfast-and-lunch restaurant, and you can't help but hear snatches of conversations at other tables. Some middle-aged men were talking politics at the next table: "But if it wasn't true they wouldn't let him put it on television . . . Chiles would sue . . ."

Unfortunately, that's not how either TV or politics works. Traditionally, all forms of political advertising have been given wide latitude under the free speech protections of the First Amendment, and rightly so. Most television stations make no effort whatsoever to determine whether political commercials are factual. Even the requirement that the purchaser of the commercial be identified has been skirted recently by flitting a tiny line on the screen at the beginning of the spot, before viewers look for it or know what is coming.

The attitude of "if it's on TV it must be true" makes voters easy prey for the false commercials that have worked so well in Florida in the past. There's a deeply cynical, self-destructive assumption behind untruthful commercials. They assume that most voters

are ignorant of the true situation, that they are so dumb they can be fooled by falsehoods and that they won't find out the truth before election day. Can that be a foundation for long-term success?

Now there's a new trend. In the Florida governor's race this year, there are signs that voters are reacting against negative TV commercials. Many people believe Democrat Bill Nelson's attack ads contributed to his larger-than-expected loss to Lawton Chiles in the primary. Gov. Bob Martinez's campaign, which was expected to be nasty, included several attack ads early. Recently it has seemed uncertain and wavering as if reconsidering the effectiveness of the negative commercials.

That uncertainty, and the morals behind negative ads, may have been explained by Martinez's campaign manager when he told a writer for Washingtonian magazine: "We've been conscientious about trying to make sure our facts are accurate. We may not be as conscientious about context, to be perfectly candid with you. We don't want to be hit with a story saying we made an error of fact. But there's no reward for putting facts in context."

With those values behind a major political campaign, voters should be warned that they most defi

nitely cannot assume negative commercials are true just because they are on television. The wise assumption would be that statements in negative commercials are out of context and thereby false and misleading. They belong in the same category as the singing commodes.

Negative political advertising on TV seems to be undergoing a healthy evolution. The first negative ad in a presidential campaign was used by Democrat Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater. The famous Daisy Girl spot showed a close-up of a little girl picking petals from a daisy. The scene faded through the countdown at a nuclear test sight into a mushroom cloud. The spot never mentioned either Goldwater or the Republican Party. Unlike today's spots, this one ran only once on Sept. 7, 1964, during NBC's Monday Night at the Movies, but that was enough to raise fears that Goldwater might be less than prudent with nuclear weapons.

Johnson had another effective negative commercial in which two hands tore up a Social Security card, raising doubts about Goldwater's voluntary approach to that popular program.

Early political consultants sought to use TV commercials to project into America's living rooms a favorable image of their candidates. Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign was masterful with that technique, turning the attention of voters from dangerously rising debt to the warm and pleasant images of "morning in America."

George Bush in 1988 brought negative commercials to new heights, using them in large numbers to raise fears of blacks and to paint his opponent as unpatriotic. The success of his campaign led many to believe that negative TV commercials would play a large role in all future campaigns.

That isn't happening in 1990 in Florida. Voters are reacting against the negative spots, and newspapers are giving them the critical coverage they deserve. The worse may be yet to come, but the signs suggest that the tide of negative political commercials is receding. If so, the American system of self government will be healthier for it.

Robert Pittman is editor of editorials and vice president of the St. Petersburg Times.