Political Advertising: “Have You No Sense Of Decency, Sir?”

In his book about political advertising, Run The Other Way, author (and friend) Bill Hillsman observed: “Voters are fairly discerning about the difference between attack ads and legitimate contrast advertising, which present a fair-minded (though ultimately pejorative) comparison of policy differences.”

We know the difference. We know where the line is. Most politicians, however, do not. They not only take off the gloves but wear poison-tipped brass knuckles as they swing wildly for their opponent’s groin.

Most political ads seem to have a basic format: “Steve Johnson says he’s not a child molester, … but what do the facts say?”

Where, I ask, is their sense of shame?

Can you imagine what would happen to cola sales if Pepsi and Coke engaged in these horrible, groin-kicking antics? “Pepsi says it doesn’t have venereal dog turds floating in its carbonation tanks, … but what do the facts say?” We’d all grow so sick and tired of the cola industry’s morally bankrupt back-biting we’d be a nation of milk drinkers within months.

I look to one of our leaders, be it a Republican or a Democrat, someone who will have the stones to stand up and say, “This is wrong. We are done with this.” Someone with the moral fiber to call for a Geneva Accords of political advertising; to outlaw use of the poison gas of slander and libel. Winning anything isn’t this important.

Have they no sense of shame?

I am reminded of the moral stand made back in 1954  by a gentleman named Joseph Welch. He was the head counsel for the United States Army while it was under investigation by Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt for “Communist activities.”

On June 9, 1954, during the hearings in Washington, D.C., it came down to this. One question posed by Mr. Welch to the moral cretin in charge of the hearings, one Joe McCarthy.

Mr. Welch: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”


  1. Sad to say, politicians use attack ads because they work. You, Luke, are like me. We think differently than a whole lot of people. For example, one of Karl Rove’s techniques in 2000 was to tell the voters of Georgia that the Democrats, once in office, would ban the Bible. And many people in Georgia believed him. He also put up images on TV challenging Senator Max Cleland’s patriotism. Senator Cleland, the one who had lost three limbs in Vietnam. Rove/Bush identified him with Osama bin Laden. It worked. Remember, half of the people out there are of below average intelligence. That’s more than a joke. It’s real. There are a whole lot of dummies out there authorized to vote. Many people claim that they don’t know how they will vote until they are in the voting booth. That kind of brain works very differently than yours and mine, brother.

    • Hey Chris: Yes, I remember reading about those stunts of Karl Rove, another moral cretin. Imagine questioning the patriotism of a U.S. Senator, public servant, and Vietnam Veteran, triple amputee no less.

  2. My sentiments exactly. Well played. Regardless of the outcome I am always glad when election season is over so we can get back to Geico commercials.

  3. I think everyone hates negative ads. But time and time again, they are proven to be effective.

    It reminds me of your book when you talk about Whipple and how it worked, despite being really really bad advertising.

    So what do you do?

    I don’t have the answer, sadly. But one idea would be to make politicians as accountable for the advertising as the rest of us. This issue goes back at least as far as Ogilvy, who wrote about it in either Ogilvy On Advertising or Confessions of an Advertising Man (forget which). Basically, politicians are ALLOWED to lie. I’m not sure why that is. But they are. I could run an ad stating that my opponent contracted gonorrhea from a 12 year old Bangkok prostitute, and that’s legal. But I can’t run an ad saying Product X is 10% more effective than Product Y without independent research to back me up.

    Negative ads seem to work largely because a significant portion of the voting public will never bother to look into the facts. (Even if they wanted to, it’s hard to find actual facts when it comes to politics.) Since most people figure voting is simply picking the lesser of evils, negative ads are entirely aimed at making the other guy more evil. Given this context, of course it works.

  4. Luke,

    Great article – inspired some great conversation with a friend of mine involved with political advertising. One thing both he and I wanted was a better definition of your terms / distinction between a comparison ad and an attack ad. And please don’t give me any of this Stewart Potter “I know it when I see it” bullshit. According to my friend, there IS a technical or trade distinction, but he doubts that’s what you and Hillsman are referring to. Here’s the technical distinction:

    “When it comes to tradespeak, a contrast ad COMPARES both candidates. You may whack the opponent for 15 seconds, then say nice, contrasting things about your guy for 12 seconds and spend 3 seconds on that absurd spoken disclaimer that serves only to be a tax on your TV time. An attack ad (often called a hit ad in the biz) doesn’t mention the sponsoring candidate beyond the disclaimer requirement.”

    Is that your real distinction, or are you including the substantive/factual basis of the ad or are you talking about the credibility of the ad or the emotional tenor of the ad (civil or snarky or angry, etc.) or what?

    So a little elaboration on this point would be most appreciated.

    Also, since you specifically compared political ads to regular commercials, I thought this distinction (also made by my political advertising friend) might shed some light on the nature of attack ads:

    “Political advertising has different goals though. At the end of the day, you need to get the client to take a positive action toward your client. You need them to buy a new heat pump from you or something. While it would be nice to get a voter to vote for me. I do almost as well if a voter that would otherwise vote for my opponent chooses not to vote at all. At some level, if you’re selling a discretionary product or service, you still have to get the buyer to choose you. In an election, getting the voter to choose no one can work beautifully, even it makes your 12th grade civics teacher want to vomit.”

    So… what do you say to all that?

    • Thanks for chiming in. Let me think before i respond. Talk to u soon

  5. Negative political ads are negative branding for politics as a whole. One negative ad about one politician makes me mistrust them all a little more. If someone were to say Pepsi causes cancer, I wouldn’t want to drink Coke either. We also hear stories of corruption and malfeasance and who knows what else? It brands our opinions on politicians. I’m not voting tomorrow. The whole system should be overalled. Career politicians are no bueno. and Did you you know if someone serves one term as a politician, they have a pension for life? No bueno.

    • I agree negative ads wreck the whole “category.” I end up pretty much hating ALL politicians. But not so much that I didn’t vote today. I have to vote. Just gave to. Otherwise, all that is left is to despair, revolt or leave the country.

  6. True, it’d would be ethically more sound for politicans to show a little more decoroum when they plaster their opinions all over a 48 sheet, but let’s be honest…there is something quiet pleasing about watching two morally bankrupt people you don’t like very much going after each other with claw hammers.

  7. Why not a TOTAL BAN on TV & radio political ads? Cigarette ads are banned & no one thinks it’s a violation of free speech.

  8. I probably have a different take than a lot of folks, since I actually make political ads. A lot of thoughts flowing, so pardon me if I’m not as organized as I’d like to be.

    (On a technical note, Jeff is right there is a technical distinction in terminology between a negative/attack ad and a contrast ad. )

    Voters all say they hate negative ads, but in poll after poll (internally) the one thing that moves numbers is negative ads. Negative ads have their downside, they usually push up the unfavorable numbers of your candidate as well. Negative ads work because it’s easier to engage fear than it is to engage positive feelings.

    I think the thing most voters hate is that most negative ads suck. People don’t hate the good ones, the ones that are creative, the ones that make us laugh, the ones that engage or entertain. Most political ad makers come out of political not creative backgrounds, so they take the easy route, they go with the cliche of the genre (dark backgrounds, ominous music), they go with Whipple because, hey that gets us to 50% in the poll. There are other reasons more defensible ones, small budgets, tight turnaround, and the fact that you really have one shot to get it right.

    (Someone once put it this way to me: Imagine coke and pepsi had a year to convince 50% of the public to buy their product on a specific date. The winner stays in business for another 2, 4, 6 years, the loser, done. What do you think they’d say about each other?)

    Now, I know a lot of folks will protest, but think about the Mac v. PC ads, what were those if not clever comparatives/negatives? Compare those to the dreadful AT&T ads attacking Verizon or the Dish/Direct TV wars (another good negative was Verizon’s Island of Misfit toys attack on the iPhone).

    Over at my blog, I try to take a look at what’s working and what’s not with political ads — most of them aren’t working, most of them are clubs, but face it most general advertising is a club, most of it sucks, some of it, the very special ones are memorable, and I think it’s the same with political ads.

    I think the distinction Hillsman was making in your quote is this: There are ads that take a fair and hard look at an opponents record whether creatively or in club fashion that I believe should be in bounds — their voting record, issues in their past that would effect how they would vote. There’s the gray area, that’s a harder call, something they did in college, something that happened in their past that may or may not matter. Then there’s the lies and distortions which are so over the line there is no line. That’s just wrong in my opinion, and we as political consultants, and candidates regardless of party have to speak out again out and out lies (like the Alan Grayson ad that totally twisted his opponent’s words to mean the opposite of what he was saying).

    There’s probably more I can say, but it’s election night, and I gotta go watch some of my candidates lose.

    • Well, I THINK we are in agreement. Yes, a spot that compares one candidate to another in an intelligent and interesting way, that’s fine. But i see so few of them out there. Obamas campaign is, as you say, a gold standard. And yes, I agree it’s those horrible ATTACK ads, those are the ones I was writing about. If you actually know any of these people in your business who DO those horrible things, please ask them for me if they have any decency? Just that. Have you no sense of decency, sir?

  9. @Loren. I agree. I say ban them all. Political ads are as morally corrupt as selling crack to kindergartners. And if for no other reason, let’s just remove all that negativity from of our lives. Don’t we have enough?
    @Jeff. Negative campaigns may work but so do positive ones. PRESIDENT Obama? Ever heard of him? 😉 Now, I’m no die-hard Obama lover. I think he’s done some good things and some bad things. But his presidential campaign was, for the most part, an uplifting rallying cry the country could embrace. And it left the republicans dumbfounded. So much that they went out and got Palin to run for VP, I think, simply for shock value and to steal some thunder from the feel-good message of “hope” Obama was selling.

  10. OK, a couple of thoughts:

    1) The nature of politics means candidates have to promise some sort of action or change or leadership to solve current political problems – even if those problems are attacks on a favorable status quo. Even if things were generally good (which they quite obviously are not), no politician could get away with campaigning that “Hey, things are good and you should elect me to sit on my ass and not screw up a good thing.” That means they HAVE to say either that a) things are bad because of joe blow and his politics and policies and you should elect me to come and fix it, or b) things are good because of what I’ve done and joe blow wants to destroy all that. Both choices lead to comparison and hit style ads. The only question is “how low will you go” in your attempt to paint the other candidate as misguided, dangerous, out of touch, etc.

    2) I think that Obama is really a special case. After 8 years of W’s Presidency, the republican’s basically proved themselves morally bankrupt and Obama’s only real Democratic competition was Hillary. Yes, he had a fight on his hands, but I’m not sure his basically substance-free messaging would have won had the country not been soul-sick for something other than Carl Rove and Hillary Clinton style shenanigans. Same reason why Carter was elected.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Suggested Reading

There is no shortcut. This is how we learn it. Bit by bit.
View List

Recent Tweets

Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.