Q – Last month on NPR, I thought I heard you say negative advertising was a serious threat to democracy. Did I hear you right? Tony Libonate
A – I don’t recall saying that, but I don’t disagree. Negative ads are dangerous because, in spite of all the vitriol, they’re actually very passive. They don’t ask us to vote for Candidate X; they ask us NOT to vote for Candidate Y. It’s basically a call to inaction, and the unintended consequence is killing us. Consider:
If Coke spends a billion dollars trying to convince America that Pepsi has shit in it, fewer Americans will buy Pepsi. Likewise, if Pepsi spends a billion dollars saying the same thing about Coke, fewer Americans will buy Coke. When the dust settles, one brand will still outsell the other. But along the way, millions of Americans will conclude that Pepsi and Coke are BOTH tainted, and stop drinking soda altogether. And so it goes with the electorate. Over the years, Republicans and Democrats have convinced us that the other side is full of shit. Now, congressional approval is under 15%, and voter turnout is at an all-time low. That’s not a coincidence.
As others have observed, “Democracy works for those who show up.” Making sure as few as possible show up, as Mike says, is not a coincidence. It’s a strategy.