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Do attack ads have to dominate campaign season? They don’t in other democracies

Photo illustration by Corey Anderson

This the seventh story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

Happy October, a month which, in even-numbered years in America, we might call Nastygram Month.

If you watch TV, the commercial breaks teem with political attack ads, 30-second assaults on your emotions, generally designed to bypass your rational mind with anecdotal out-of-context evidence, scary music, shaky cameras, weird bursts of light and deep-voiced narrators warning of terrible consequences you and your loved ones will suffer if Candidate X or Y gets elected or wins another term.

An airline executive once (supposedly) said that if his industry went after its competitors the way U.S. political candidates go after one another, customers would be too scared to fly on any airline.

I’m always a bit stunned that anyone could find these deranged creepshows persuasive. Even if some of the facts border on some weak, technical definition of accuracy, what kind of a lummox would allow so precious a commodity as his or her vote to be influenced by obviously one-sided presentations and insults to the intelligence, each begging far more questions than it answers and omitting a lot of relevant information that you would want to know before making up your mind about the “issue” under “discussion”?

And yet the people in charge of making the ads must think they work. So must the campaigns, which pay ridiculous sums to make and air the nastygrams. And those who contribute the billions needed to air them must buy into the insulting notion that this is what persuasive political discourse looks like in our oh-so-highly-evolved democracy. A big-time presidential or high statewide-office campaign typically spends half or more of its money on ads, sometimes more than 60 percent.

Judging by the amount spent on them, these stink bombs have become the main medium of U.S. political communication.

Does it have to be like this? Is this just the price we must pay for our love of freedom of expression, especially political expression?

U.S. is a huge outlier

Well, no. It basically isn’t like this in the rest of the democratic world. In the context of how democracies handle campaign communications, the United States is a huge outlier.

Most of the democracies of Western Europe (England, France, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, to name a few) actually ban political advertising from TV.

Yes, that’s right. Ban. Like as in there are laws against it.

Other countries that allow advertising regulate it as to its length and format in an effort to make it more substantive. According to Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of American Electorate, only two democracies in the world place no meaningful or effective restrictions on political advertising: Finland and the United States.

In place of 30-second attack ads, many of these countries have a tradition called (to use the British term for it) “Party Political Broadcasts.” On a publicly funded broadcasting system (like the BBC in Britain), time for such broadcasts can be provided at no cost to the parties, often parceled out according to a formula designed to, for example, give the major parties more time than the minor ones (although the minor parties will still get some air time, which seldom happens in the United States).

These broadcasts used to be strictly no-frills affairs, featuring the party leader explaining the party’s platform or defending its record in office. In France, the presentations are highly restricted. The French regulations also forbid disparaging your political opponents.  

The French regulations have probably gone too far in the other direction. Emmanuel Saint-Martin, a French journalist based in New York, said the limits on party broadcasts are so strict, requiring presentations so formal and so boring that “nobody watches them.”

On the other hand, the French rules against advertising work. French citizens get much of what they know about the candidates and their positions from actual journalism. Saint-Martin, who lived in the United States through several election cycles, said that although the French obsession with enforced substance and balance can be boring, it seems preferable to the U.S. system.

“The French care about freedom of expression too, you know,” he said. “But I don’t buy the argument that your system is fundamentally about freedom of expression. It’s only freedom of expression for Madison Avenue to express itself by pounding away time and again on some flaw in a candidate’s character or voting record that a poll told you was the best way” to move the numbers. “I don’t see how it helps anyone in getting an informed view on candidates,” Saint-Martin said.

The French system is aimed at striking a balance between freedom and equality, he said. Perhaps the obsession with equality goes too far, leading to those boring, super-regulated broadcasts. But the French would say the U.S. system is out of balance because it allows some wealthy and powerful groups to “use their freedom in such a way that others can’t be heard,” Saint-Martin said.

Brazil’s system

David Samuels, a University of Minnesota comparative political scientist who has studied campaign communications in Brazil, made the Brazilian version of the party broadcast system sound pretty strange.

The broadcast is divided according to a formula that gives parties a share of time equal to the share of seats the party holds in the Chamber of Deputies, which currently is divided among 27 parties. So some of the slots are very small. Within a given party’s share, it can award slots to a candidate that may be as small as a few seconds, barely time for the candidate to show his face and say his name.

Still, no other form of advertising appears on broadcast TV in the Brazil. So every candidate wants to be part of that presentation. And when the political presentation broadcasts are occurring, there is nothing else available to watch on any broadcast channel. A lot of Brazilians can’t afford cable, so if their TV is on, they are getting the political pitches.

Samuels declined to render a judgment as to whether this was, on balance, better or worse than the U.S. version of 30-second spots popping up all over TV. He tells his students that every system has its strengths and weaknesses and it’s worth thinking about alternative systems.

Carleton College professor Steven Schier was in Sweden to observe the most recent elections. He said there were no political ads on Swedish TV but some were shown in movie theaters, where they are apparently legal.

In Britain, ads are also banned. And they also use party broadcasts. But the restrictions on the broadcasts are much looser than in France. The British party broadcasts have moved in the direction of what Americans would think of as TV advertising, but not too far in that direction.

(For an example, here is a Party Political Broadcast by the British Labour Party from 2014, not during a general election campaign but during the run-up to elections for UK seats in the European Parliament. Unlike a typical U.S. ad of 30 seconds, this one is three-minutes long, and also much calmer in tone than the scary stuff we get at election time.)

Ads feel like a documentary

Travis Ridout, a Washington State University political scientist who studies international political communications, says the British ads have the feel of “a three-to-five minute documentary… it gives a political party more time to explain what they’re about, how they would govern differently, to make an argument and give examples of policy differences compared to the sound byte that a typical U.S. campaign spot has to work in because of the 30-second time limit.”

In a case like Britain’s, where the BBC has a large share of the viewing audience, the broadcasts take on added importance that wouldn’t really work on in the United States, where the Public Broadcasting System, for all its great attributes, seldom attracts a large audience.

The United States is not alone, but is among the small minority of democracies that has no system for giving free TV time to the major parties for such presentations. The common European system is also a factor (along with many other factors) that empowers party organizations and party leaders, since they control the broadcast time and the message, whereas the U.S. system empowers individual candidates, individual campaigns and, of course, the “messaging” gurus hired by third-party fundraisers.

Bans on political advertising are common across the democratic world, but political consultants, often brought in from America, are starting to find ways around the bans using TV technology like satellite broadcasting that is beyond the reach of a particular nation’s regulations. In Sweden, for example, where ads are banned from television, viewers can watch Finnish TV, where they are allowed, and some Swedes are definitely starting to see more and more political advertising that way. Satellite broadcasting is harder to regulate and easily crosses national boundaries.

In fact, both major parties in the UK have hired big-name American strategists, with both parties choosing consultants who helped President Obama during his two presidential campaigns. David Axelrod was hired to get the Labour Party ready for elections due in 2015, a hire that was met with skepticism by some British commentators, in part because the specialty of U.S. political mechanics — TV advertising — has so little application in the British context. And Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, signed up last year as an adviser to the British Prime Minister (and Tory Party leader) David Cameron.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by E Gamauf on 10/20/2014 - 09:05 am.

    Part of the WHY?

    WHY America relies on 60 second trashings of competing candidates instead of strong positive messages?

    Its just easy & convenient to rip something already in existence.
    There is no new synthesis involved, while appearing at least as smart as the original premise one criticizes:

    No one ever notices that the theater critic has neither created, nor risked a thing in his review of a work!

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 10/20/2014 - 09:12 am.

    Guns and attack ads, welcome to America

    Two things I’ve noticed: I have not heard I have heard a lot of ads attacking Nolan but zero ads for Mills by Mills. Does he run ads up by Brainard that I just haven’t heard? The other thing I’ve heard is that all the attack ads for whatever candidate by the Republican National Committee all feature the words “our” and “we” as if “we” includes all of us listeners in the same boat as the Koch brothers who are paying for many of those ads. Talk about creepy: Republicans talking about “our” values.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/20/2014 - 11:02 am.


    The main differences between American political parties are personalities, not policies.
    We have no significant socialist parties; no significant fascist parties. It’s all in the middle.
    So ads feature personalities, and exaggerations of political differences rather than real policy debates.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/20/2014 - 12:20 pm.

    One of my fantasies…

    …is precisely to ban political advertising from television.

    I think it would be great if PBS (for national offices) and TPT (for campaigns related to in-state offices) offered hour-long programming during a particular campaign season, possibly multiple hour-long programs, which would allow each party and/or its candidates to state their case. As in some of the countries Eric mentioned, regulate the content to the extent that candidates/parties would not be allowed to focus on “here are all the ways the other candidate/party is the Devil’s Spawn,” but would be required, instead, to lay out why they are the better solution for the public to the concerns of the day. If Independents can get organized enough to field candidates and draw 5% of the vote (5% seems a reasonable threshold to me), they get to take part as well, as would any other group (e.g., greens, libertarians, marxists, what-have-you) that was able to draw 5% of the vote in the previous statewide or national election.

    Groups that qualify would perhaps have to pay for the cost of production of the program, which seems reasonable to me, but the air time itself (since the airwaves, by law, belong to the public) would be free. One salutary effect of that arrangement might be to force national television networks, and more importantly, their local affiliates, to look elsewhere for sources of revenue during election years. Genuine news coverage to replace the current heartstring-yanking “personal” stories that are, in effect, pablum, would be welcome, and who knows? Actual “community television” might take place in areas beyond knee-jerk coverage of crime or video of house fires.

    In most cases a candidate, even a literate and articulate candidate, can’t explain why this policy or that one makes sense (at least to them) in the span of less than 30 seconds. Moreover, since TV advertising is so expensive – and therefore bolsters the bottom line of most local TV stations in the guise of “public service” – political ads on TV tend strongly toward individuals and organizations that have access to very large sums of money.

    Let me posit that access to large sums of money should not be an important qualification of any candidate for any political office, local, regional, state or national. Yes, money is often viewed as the “mother’s milk of politics,” but the quality of political discourse has not been enhanced by its presence. A candidate should be able to deliver her message and philosophy to the public without having to pander to individuals or groups simply because those individuals or groups are dangling bushel baskets of campaign money in front of her.

    Based on frequent conversations with a friend of mine who’s a former Governor of another state, *no one* offers substantial amounts of money to a campaign and expects, literally, nothing in return. Big bucks being offered to a particular campaign inevitably have a corrosive and corrupting effect, and if I give your campaign a quarter-million dollars, I don’t *really* want “independence” from you – I want you to pay at least a little bit more attention to what I’d like than you do to my neighbor, who gave your campaign $10, or maybe nothing at all.

    Having spent some time on the fringes of public policy, I’m sure Saint-Martin’s description of policy broadcasts as “boring” is reasonably accurate. Public policy, in my experience, often IS boring. That doesn’t make it unimportant.

    I’ve also read – long ago in a source I can’t remember – that Britain (and perhaps other European democracies) limits not just the means of political advertising, but the length of the campaigns themselves. What a concept!! Political operatives and professionals could spend as much of their lives on political campaigns as they wanted, but the general public’s involvement is limited to a stated period. I remember 60 days, but could be wrong about that.

    In any case, campaigns limited by time, method and expense but still providing ample opportunity for candidate ‘x’ to explain why I should vote for her, sound like a great idea to me.

  5. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/20/2014 - 01:10 pm.


    Here’s me ad: my opponent eats live puppies for breakfast every morning. And while you’re not looking, he paints your doorknob with precious bodily fluids tainted with the ebola virus.

    Is this the kind of person you want representing us in Congress? Stop him before he gets too far. Vote today!

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/21/2014 - 09:57 am.

      Thank you for that thoughtful insight, Todd. It’s that sort of deep commentary that makes Minnpost such an amusing read.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/20/2014 - 01:37 pm.

    This is a country where a large portion of the media (entertainment and “talk”) exists on providing a daily frisson of conspiracy, fear, violence and broadly painted stereotypes of guilty and innocent, and rapid, complete and simple answers.

    How could our political advertisements be otherwise?

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 10/21/2014 - 09:14 am.

      Has it ever been other wise?

      That’s a real question. I don’t know the answer but I suspect that paying on people’s fears have been around for a long time.

      What we don’t have is an immediate response.

      How about 10 seconds of after every ad?

  7. Submitted by Robert Leduc on 10/20/2014 - 02:15 pm.

    Why attack ads work

    You write:

    “I’m always a bit stunned that anyone could find these deranged creepshows persuasive.”

    True. They aren’t actually designed to get you to vote for someone. They are designed to make you decide not to turn up to vote.

    Then the party with the best get out the vote operations for the base wins. Minimizing uncertainty by removing voters whose opinion is unknown is the goal.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/20/2014 - 07:06 pm.


    It is indeed puzzling why would anyone vote on the basis of a 30-second commercial or even listen to it. It means however that voters have to be educated and commercials have to be… better regulated or banned. This system may and should be improved.

  9. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/20/2014 - 09:42 pm.

    Whatever benefits the DFL

    Liberals use to complain about negative adds – but now they are the experts at such tactics. Most of the negative adds that I see are sponsored by the national democratic party or Dayton’s former wife. The have to spend all the special interest money somehow!

    Liberals use to complain about outside, special insterest money being used in “unauthorized campaigns” – but now they are the huge benifactors of these unregulated funds.

    The calls for limiting money and limiting spending (campaign finance reform) grow strangely silent when the DFL are the primary benefactors to such tatics.

    Now we here questions if these tactics are effective, and some of the solutions offered are a greater role for public TV – – please.

  10. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/21/2014 - 08:12 am.

    Ridiculous Ads

    I can’t figure out how someone would be moved by a political ad either. The scare tactics are so overdone as to be obviously manipulative. The negative claims are so narrow that any intelligent person should figure that they’re misleading. They’re insulting to our intelligence. Of course, I’m not a low information voter and I suspect very few of the regular readers of this site are either. We probably don’t understand the exact psychology going on here.

    I do get a chuckle out of the ads bashing Mills for unearned success, coming from a wealthy family. Especially when they’re followed by the ad that credits Dayton as the ‘coach’ who brought Minnesota prosperity. That’s high comedy!

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2014 - 02:53 pm.

      Why would someone be affected

      by ANY ad?
      The claims in commercial advertising may be more positive, but they are no more believable, and the sources no less governed by self interest than are political ads.
      But they appear to work — we spend more money on them than on medical research.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/21/2014 - 04:26 pm.

        Not all Ads are Equal

        I think you’re throwing out some perfectly good ads there. If it’s around meal time and an ad shows a juicy cheeseburger, I may suddenly decide that I should have a juicy cheeseburger to eat. The science behind this isn’t difficult. Political ads don’t work the same way.
        If you see a claim about cutting funds or voting for/against taxes followed by a the quick flash of a cite, you can bet that the claim is false in spirit, if not in truth. It usually represents a procedural vote or a violation of baseline budgeting or some similar slight of hand. Not always, but that’s the way to bet.
        Even in the Dayton ad that I referenced, yes it’s true that Dayton was governor during the past few years and Minnesota has done well. It’s hard to put your finger on just *what* he has done that’s made the difference though. So the commercial simply says that he was the coach during this success.
        That doesn’t quite match up. The coach of a team controls the strategy and playing time and, well, dozens of other things. None of this matches what Dayton has done as Governor. I don’t mean this as a knock on the guy. He’s been steady. He’s been honest. One of his most hands on areas, MnSure has been something of a basket case.
        But the idea that he has somehow personally guided the state to prosperity is a bit silly. I expect that he’ll be reelected and I hope that Minnesota continues to do well. But if it does, it won’t be because of the heroic efforts of Mark Dayton.

        The cheeseburger commercial is much more honest.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2014 - 05:22 pm.

          The cheesburger

          is probably worse for your health than Dayton, though.
          So the ad has induced you do something bad for your health, but good for Mickey D’s.
          Don’t see much difference between this and political ads.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2014 - 02:55 pm.


      It’s having a record to run on.
      Mills is not known for his governmental service.

  11. Submitted by Tom Mortenson on 10/21/2014 - 01:14 pm.

    Public Funding and Limiting Attack Ads

    I know that the majority of citizens in Minnesota are concerned about the ever increasing amount of money spent in elections and what seems to be an endless number of attack ads. Perhaps one area where we can all agree on in combating undue influence from these negative ads can be found by placing a clause in any public financing that no funds provided by taxpayers could be used for attack ads. Just think how refreshing it would be to have candidates promote solutions to problems, outline their qualifications and speak to the issues at hand rather than merely attacking their opponent.

    Adding this change as a rule to receiving and spending public financing funds makes sense. No taxpayer that I know wants to fund attack ads using taxpayer money. While it will not solve the total problem, it, at least establishes a foundation for reform.

    This simple recommendation is a step in the right direction to ensure that our government remains true to Lincoln’s vision: a government of, by and for the people. It is worthy of consideration to keep open and honest elections and for maximum citizen participation in the political process rather than turning voters off from the negative political ads flooding the airwaves.

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