Maybe the first campaign law in recorded history is a Roman law enacted in 300 B.C. that forbade a political candidate to artificially enhance the whiteness of his toga to appear more attractive.
Negative campaigns are part of American political culture. John Adams attacked Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 presidential election. He portrayed Jefferson as a drunkard, gambler, and adulterer. He won the election against Jefferson.
Professor Cleveland Ferguson of Florida State University classifies negative campaign ads in three categories:
1. Fair: presenting factual information
2. False: presenting untrue statements made with malice
3. Deceptive: distorting the truth.
A public opinion survey conducted by the Institute of Global Ethics found that 80% of voters believed that “attack-oriented campaigning is unethical, undermines democracy, lowers voter turnout, and produces less ethical elected officials.” According to a recent New York Times/CBS survey, a record 82% of Americans now disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. In this context, should we really be surprised that voter turnout and public opinion of Congress are both very low?
Yet and unfortunately attack ads are effective in reaching the ultimate goal of getting a candidate elected. Why?
According to David Doak, a media consultant, “the most effective negative ads are deadly serious; they work because they make voters mad at your opponent.” Gina Garromone, author of Voter Response to Negative Political Ads, believes that negative ads are effective because they instill fear and anxiety. And anger and fear are rarely good motivators!
I totally understand that an election campaign is a form of war, but contrary to what many believe, I do not think that in love - or is it hate? - and war all is permitted.
From an ethical point of view, some of negative ads are problematic because they often violate the values of truth or honesty, civility, and sometimes decency. There will never be any ethical justification for lying and distorting the truth.
It is possible to be an honest, fair and decent opponent? I think it is.
James Leach, a former 15-term Republican representative from Iowa is a good example. In his 30-year career, he never participated in mud-slaying his opponents. He wrote in US News & World Report: “The temper and integrity of campaigns are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election.”
Emmanuel Tchividjian is SVP and ethics officer at Ruder Finn.