British Columbia

Attack ads get the job done — but at what price?

UBC expert says attack ads are effective but care must be taken not to undermine the democratic process

UBC expert says attack ads are effective but care must be taken not to undermine the democratic process

The "Say anything John" political attack ad paid for by B.C. business interests from the resource and hospitality sectors is designed to highlight an alleged divide between the party's environmental and union supporters. (Say Anything John/YouTube)

The effectiveness of attack ads is widely recognized, but a UBC expert says there's a cost.

Max Cameron, with the UBC Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, says too many can turn the political climate toxic.

"When politics gets too negative and particularly when it focuses on personal matters that are not relevant to the election ... I think we have a very serious problem because it discourages people from engaging in politics," he said. 

Discussion sparked or smothered?

Gerry Nicholls, a political strategist who has helped conservative campaigns in Canada and the U.S. craft attack ads, says they can serve a purpose — for instance, when you need to "point out the failings of another candidate, or ... why their values might not agree with the values of voters."

He's not a fan of lies or personal attacks that are irrelevant to the election, "but other than that, let's go at it," he said. "It gets people all emotional, and I think in the end, that's a good thing for democracy."

But Cameron believes negative ads have the opposite effect.

He points to the 2016 U.S federal election as one where negativity "violates fundamental political norms — like saying, 'lock her up,' [or] 'I'm not going to respect the outcome of an election.'"

"The United States is paying a price for the kind of toxicity that its politics has generated," he said.

Part of that price, says Cameron, is that potential candidates are scared off by what he sees as an extremely negative atmosphere, which he counts as part of the reason women are under-represented in politics.

"Women are particularly averse to the idea of having their names dragged through the mud in front of their children, in front of their partners, in front of their friends," he said.

Can positivity work?

Cameron points to a few well-known politicians — like Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau — who have found success running positive campaigns.

"Telling powerful stories that answer the question. 'Why am I in politics?' and 'Why do I believe that I can represent you?' Those are really often the most effective ads," he said.

But Nicholls says positivity isn't always sustainable.

"[Obama] was very positive in 2008. In 2012, he was very negative. It depends very much on the situation that you're facing," he said. "If you want to get elected ... then sometimes you have to be aggressive."

Cameron says the 2013 B.C. election demonstrated the power of attack ads.

"The NDP entered that election 20 points ahead of the Liberals and lost it, and they ran on a campaign that was positive," he said.

How far is too far?

Both agree political ads should be held to the same standard as any other ad in terms of what should be allowed to air.

"If they say something that is untrue, if they something which is blatantly false then they should be held accountable for that," said Nicholls.

With files from CBC Radio One's B.C. Almanac

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