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

Most democracies ban political advertising from TV. 

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.