Political Campaigning


Political Campaigns: Ethics in Attack Ads

Attack ads are used by political contributors of candidates seem to be very unethical during elections. At times some of these ads seem to “break the law” as advertisers attempt to influence segments of voters. These advertisements are meant to induce a negative, false, and inaccurate portrayal of an opponent during a political campaign. Print advertisements were a popular medium for attack ads until the 1960’s when television first introduced attacks ads. My own interpretation of politics was formed in my middle school years of high school. Being raised in a Republican party family in Florida, I discovered, during the Carter-Ford election, that I was not a follower of the family politic. I learned this the hard way. Coming home from school, I sported a handmade paper headband that displayed my support for the “peanut-farming” man and his smile. My father was the least impressed. This created a need to find out why we liked one person over another during a political election. I was not a party person but “listened and watched” to which one sounded nicer at the time and I chose Carter. Creating a need to find out more about politics and government this left me with the question of how people are influenced and “why” people chose one party or candidate over another. This led to an interest in attacks ads. There are many ways to structure a negative message about others in the media. The question being considered here is about political attack advertisements, “are they the “truth”? How do people check “facts” portrayed in political campaigns and are the “fact-checkers” reliable? Why is it ethical to use attacks ads against others that may be false? Who regulates the advertising during the election process and are there legal issues attached to attack ads? The types of negative advertisements discussed in this paper will examine racial, stereotyped and religion-based types of attacks advertisements that have been used in past elections.

Race baiting is a popular technique used during political campaigns to induce a negative emotional reaction about someone’s religious beliefs or connection to an assumption about race that may be incorrect about an individual’s beliefs. This type of political attack ad can be subtle or obvious and occurs when a person or group is attached to a negative event that generalizes the group in a negative public perception. The historic event of the 911 attacks in New York City opened the doorway for the American public to connect Muslims and people of the Islamic faith to terrorism. This assumption leads others to assume people who are speaking in Mid-eastern dialect and dark-skinned are probably are Muslim and of the Islamic faith. The tragic event of 911 has been capitalized upon in some political campaigns for many years and people of the Islamic faith, seemingly, will be attached to terrorism. Sam Wolfson of the Guardian published a story about the top five most bigoted advertisements in 2018, this article provides examples and some types of video advertisements that have been produced based on racial and religious issues. One of the advertisements portrays Abigail Spanburger, a white woman, as being depicted as a supporter of terrorism, because she taught at a high school where some known terrorist had attended school before her tenure. Using pictures of a frowning, middle-eastern man invokes memories of 911 in the political ad against her and her values. The ad even mentions a failed assassination attempt by these same individuals against a former president of the US (Wolfson, 2018). The political advertisement is using the influence of assumptions created by a negative event to portray values of the opposing political party. Values of political parties can be based on the stereotypes that have been acquired from the culture of the people or organizations it comes from, in many cases.

Attempts to stereotype other political candidates can be seen in the political advertisements organizations or people may use against the opposition in political campaigning. Stereotype, as defined in the text, is “negative or limiting preconceived beliefs about a type of person or a group of people that do not take into account individual differences” (“Bookshelf Online,” 2019). Chinese people and drug users/dealers have meshed into a political attack ad supported by Don Blankenship, who was convicted as a CEO for the death of miners in West Virginia. He ran against the Senate Majority leader Mitchel McConnell. In the, paid for, advertisement, he refers to Senator McConnell as a “Cocaine Mitch” who supports his “Chinese family” in relation to the global economy, by creating jobs for the Chinese people. Watching political advertisements that seem outrageous are made to be as negative as possible while using stereotypes and labels. It seems like a relatively easy way to influence voters and sway opinion, even if the “facts” are not true (Pathé, Bowman, Pathé, & Bowman, 2018). Stereotyping and using racial biases are commonly used to persuade voters in political attacks ads.

Racial biases are still very prevalent in politics and are used to influence certain segments of a voting population. “Using racial biases in messages can be funded with Super Pac contributions for political advertising and in the US. Paul Ryan has been mentioned in connection with race-baiting ads funded by the Congressional leadership fund” (Wolfson, 2018). Why are these types of political ads allowed to exist even if the public may not agree, in general, with using race and religious beliefs against others, such as in the workplace? Who is responsible for the regulation of political advertising and what are the costs of, if any, for inducing negative emotion in voters during elections? Ethical behavior is not regulated by law unless certain instruments are in place to protect confidential information.

Responsible parties representing individuals or organizations who produce negative information about an opposing party can come from within an organization. Juanita Lazaono who worked for George W. Bush’s campaign would give confidential information to the Gore campaign which breached confidentiality agreements she had made with the Bush campaign. This action made it illegal to give out information. To obtain and get information illegal behavior can result from “spies” who may work in an organization or campaign (“Loose Lips Sink Ships … and PR Campaigns – ProQuest,” 2000). Information can be difficult to obtain from others, especially if it may be used negatively. The lengths people will go to find information has legal repercussions in some cases when it involves confidentiality agreements. If information about others is not illegal to be divulged where can this be checked for accuracy and are there penalties or sanctions against publicizing inaccurate or private information? Recently a new trend has been set with organizations who verify, and “fact check” information made by politicians and others. Some of these “fact-checkers” have also been under scrutiny for business practices but overall is perceived as reliable and credible by the public.

Newspapers and television have come under scrutiny by organizations referred to as “fact-checkers”. According to Francis and Taylor Online, “if candidates and consultants think ad watches are effective, they may alter their campaigns to avoid scrutiny and criticism “(“To Tell the Truth: Ad-Watch Coverage, Ad Tone, and the Accuracy of Political Advertising,” 2017). People will be less motivated to spread negative information about others, especially in association with political advertising. In opposition to the avoidance of criticism, some believe negative attacks ads are necessary for the process. In his book “In Defense of Negativity: Attacks Ads in Presidential Campaigns”, John Geer argues, “negative ads focus on important political issues and give voters critical information about differences between candidates. Attack ads do not degrade, but rather enrich the democratic process (“Attack Ad Hall of Fame — selected by John G. Geer,” 2004), Irrespective of the differences “fact-checkers” of negative and positive advertisements or supporters for the negative type of ads, value information and make judgments based on this information. Both influence the outcome of voter’s decision in political elections. Recently in 2010, the US supreme court decided in a 5-4 majority decision that allows corporations, unions, or ideological groups to spend as much money as they want during political elections.

The US places a high value on the Freedom of Speech and as recently as 2010 the Supreme court has supported the rights of speech provided under the First Amendment to ideological groups. In a court case brought by Citizens United to publish a negative “movie” about Hillary Clinton in which she is called a lying, power hungry viper. Even though the advertisement is about negative and possibly “unethical” it is not illegal. The US Supreme Court ruled that McCain-Feingold, a campaign finance reform act passed in 2002, violated the first amendment and allowed the Citizens United to publish the material if the wanted, whereas they could not under the current Act. This spreads doubt among the court as the ruling can be viewed as a way to corrupt leaders in political campaigning (“United States: Unbound; Free speech and campaign cash – ProQuest,” 2000). Protecting the freedom of speech is very important to the US population but often meets with a very gray area in terms of ethical boundaries in the political arena.

When voters are presented with political attack ads there are plenty of factors involved when “verifying facts” that should be evaluated when considering information during political elections. Due to the nature of the relationship, the advertisers have with public relations agencies “attacks ads” in political elections are not illegal but may be unethical. Being unethical is not a violation of the law but can violate standards set by certifying agencies. “The Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the Library of Congress. Because their jurisdictions often overlap, advertisers may sometimes have difficulty complying with their regulations. has been delegated the responsibility or regulating the advertising industry in the United State” (“Bookshelf Online,” 2019). Political advertising is considered commercial speech, and this is distinguished separately for noncommercial speech. Political campaigning is about selling an idea and is considered a product which affords the advertisers room to convey their values upon the public and is left up to the individual to interpret if the information is valid and useful in deciding during elections.

In lending belief and support to a political candidate, one should consider what kind of transaction is taking place during a political election and what rules and laws are applicable depending on where the elections may be taking place, the laws and regulations will vary. Most of this article is referring to democratically ruled countries that rely on agency-client laws regarding advertising. Commercial speech is classified separately from noncommercial speech and there is additional leeway applied to the speech which is also an item to sell, like a product. Selling requires advertising. According to the text ethical advertising is defined as “doing what the advertiser and the advertiser’s peers believe is morally right in a given situation” (Bookshelf Online,” 2019). Applying this definition, we can see that much of what we see much is determined by the culture where an election may be taking place. As with the US, that protects the freedom speech, as a right of expression, and this includes corporations, unions, and ideological groups. These rights may not be extended in other countries.

In closing, I have learned that advertising regulations and law are mainly formed by industry standards along with local, state and national culture that play an important role in what is acceptable or not in certain political arenas. As a young person, I was not aware of why my thinking was different than my family. I was not aware that the people, through radio, television and newspaper advertising were influencing my way of thinking as were most teachers and educators in the school system. My family values were not in tune with what I felt, and the school systems culture supported my views more. Which meant more of my teachers were in favor of Jimmy Carter for President. This fits my view and his representation as a smiling peanut farmer appealed to me. Not knowing that about advertising then, I did not realize that the people who supported Carter for President also had paid for “attack ads” against Ford during that Presidential Campaign. I have also come to understand the complex nature of campaign financing laws in the US which fluctuate as the makeup of the Supreme Court changes in the US. Overall, I understand how political attack ads can manipulate people’s point of view if they have some understanding of a process. I am not sure if I agree that money should be able to influence elections and the organizations paying for these messages only have the accountability of a product. This provides unethical behavior to exist in political campaigns and causes more distractions in the already complicated election processes in democratic countries. Resolving this issue is not easy, as the advertising industry has a global reach and is a large part of the global economy. Changing the rules of identifying political candidates as products representing ideological organizations could be a good start.




Attack Ad Hall of Fame — selected by John G. Geer. (2004, January 1). Retrieved February 24, 2019, from https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/284996.html

Bookshelf Online. (2019). Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://mbsdirect.vitalsource.com/#/books/9781259900136/cfi/6/18!/4/254/2@0:0

Loose Lips Sink Ships … and PR Campaigns – ProQuest. (2000, January 1). Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://search-proquest-com.cmich.idm.oclc.org/docview/204225914/fulltext/1FBFD4236EC14B3APQ/1?accountid=10181

Pathé, S., Bowman, B., Pathé, S., & Bowman, B. (2018, November 6). The Best and Worst Campaign Ads of 2018. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/best-worst-campaign-ads-2018

To Tell the Truth: Ad-Watch Coverage, Ad Tone, and the Accuracy of Political Advertising. (2017, January 1). Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://www-tandfonline-com.cmich.idm.oclc.org/doi/full/10.1080/10584609.2017.1414089?scroll=top&needAccess=true

United States: Unbound; Free speech and campaign cash – ProQuest. (2000, January 1). Retrieved February 23, 2019, from https://search-proquest-com.cmich.idm.oclc.org/docview/223981026?accountid=10181&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

Wolfson, S. (2018, October 25). Five of the most bigoted and divisive political ads from the 2018 midterms. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/25/midterm-attack-ads-five-most-bigoted-divisive-republicans-democrat-videos




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