What's a "Negative Ad"?

Both candidates in the 29th are on record in opposition to negative advertising.  At Tuesday's debate, Randy Kuhl said "I've never run a negative campaign and never will."  Massa's made the same pledge, and has characterized Kuhl's response to the MoveOn.org ads which ran in August as a "negative ad".

Massa's new ad campaign paints an unpleasant picture of Rep Kuhl.  The television ad is pretty mild, and the radio ad is quite harsh, though the harsh words are all coming from a respected third party, not Massa.  So are these "negative" ads?  Massa thinks not: during his appearance on WITR last night, he said that listeners need to distinguish between negative attack ads and comparative (or compare and contrast) advertising.

I see some truth in Massa's distinction.  Both candidates have a right to criticize the other, and calling all criticism "negative" simply because it's a statement against something is an assault on reason.  There's nothing wrong with an honest critique of the other guy's position.

That said, when people complain about negative ads, they're not referring to the few honest critiques that air each election cycle.  Their gripe is against the stereotypical and stupid ads that clog the airwaves.   If you've ever watched a Daily Show spoof of one of these ads, you've seen all the components:  the grainy black-and-white pictures, the deep-voiced narrator, and the overheated rhetoric. 

What voters hate about negative ads that they treat us like morons.  When they use some clever ploy (e.g., Massa's hide-and-seek kids) or feature obnoxious graphics and a sneering narrator (e.g., Kuhl's latest ad), they tell us that we're too fucking dumb or distracted to pay attention without some kind of visual aid.  Never mind that it's probably true -- even numbskulls hate being treated like morons.

I don't think Eric Massa or Randy Kuhl really understand the antipathy of the general population towards ads that contain even a whiff of the "negative ad" formula.  These guys, and the media geniuses who advise them, also don't get how a few simple ads would be a breath of fresh air.

I think Massa would have been better off by just standing in front of a camera talking about some issue -- health care, the war, free trade -- for 30 seconds.   Massa's got a lot of passion, and his campaign is a true grassroots event.  A down-to-earth ad with low production values would get that message across:  "I'm not a politician, but here's what I believe."  He could also say something like "Most of my contributors are individuals, so I'm trying to save a few bucks with this ad." 

Kuhl could also make a great positive ad by talking about how he's visited every town in the district once a year:  it's an impressive feat, no matter what you think of his politics.   He could follow it up with a discussion on how those visits changed his mind about Social Security privatization: "I listened to you."

Of course, this advice is probably considered stupid by professional media advisors.  No matter -  the first candidate who starts making simple, straightforward ads with their personal video camera will have an impact that those paid advisors can't imagine.   


I agree 100%. A negative ad to me is one focussed on dissing the other guy, no matter by who. I, too, want Massa to simply explain his positions. That in itself would go a long way towards "negating" Kuhl's negative ads. Example - talk about the competitive disadvantage of not having universal health care in the context of creating and maintaining jobs in the district. Talk about how much health care already costs us and the impossibility of bringing costs down within the current system. Talk about the true deficit, not just the year-to-year one and ask who is going to pay it - us or our children. Explain his proposals for true pay-go applied to both spending and revenue - reference the balanced budget of the late 1990's and the economic boom/employment better than now that occurred even without "tax cuts." I could go on forever.

I am intrigued by your defense of Mr. Massa's showing of "negative" ads, especially since Mr. Kuhl's argument about running ads against Mr. Massa from content he used on the web was defended at the Elmira debate in the exact same fashion.

So, are they negative? When Mr. Kuhl ran the "higher tax" ad, it was decided on the blogosphere that it was.

When Mr. Massa runs the ad (especially the one where the General slams Mr. Kuhl), this is "comparative (or compare and contrast) advertising".

Does this sound like double standard?

Mary, my intent wasn't to defend Massa's ads. I do see some truth in his distinction between a negative ad and a compare/contrast ad. That distinction is one commonly drawn by politicians, by the way. But on balance, my conclusion is that people are sick of attack ads, whether they are harsh or mild, and that both Kuhl and Massa should do better.

I think that Kuhl's higher tax ad is a little more dishonest that Massa's two ads. Massa never said directly "I'll raise taxes" - he wants to readjust the tax burden and has specifically come out for pay-as-you-go government, a tax limiting measure. Also, Kuhl's TV ad is more negative in tone and atmosphere than Massa's -- it has the black-and-white picture, the overblown announcer, etc.

Massa's TV ad makes two points: one is that Kuhl is hiding behind attack ads, and the other is that Kuhl voted in ways that the voters might not like. I think the second point could have been made by itself, and followed up with a positive statement of how Massa would vote. The cutesy hide-and-seek theme could be dispensed with altogether. But the main content of the ad -- Kuhl's votes -- is factual.

As for the radio ad, I think the worst part of it is the tagline, which asks whether Kuhl is a liar or just wrong on Iraq. I think the liar part went over the edge. As for using Batiste's words, perhaps "harsh but fair" is the way I feel about it. Batiste has bashed Kuhl multiple times in print and in a radio interview. His agenda isn't the election of Eric Massa, and he's not a politician. That's why his words are so devastating to Kuhl. Kuhl's trip to Iraq, and the comments he made after it, were part of an intentional plan to use first-person testimony to give a falsely rosy picture of the situation in Iraq. By doing so, he opened himself up to criticism, and Batiste gave it to him.

Perhaps I am holding to a double standard, but the whole negative ad issue is complicated, and I'm not sure where the balance should be drawn between useful comparison and smears. I've read two good articles on it lately that might interest some readers. The first is Michael Kinsley's essay on negative ads. The second is an article in Reason magazine that argues that negative ads are actually good for elections.

I have been doing some phone banking for Massa, and I can tell you that whatever the campaign experts say, negative doesn't work in this district - and unfair it might be, but people I've talked with are more turned off by Massa's ad than Kuhl's. As the Barend campaign and the divorce stuff showed, Democrats in the southern tier have to stay positive. Massa could have responded to Kuhl by simply repeating kuhl's charges and refuting them with his own positions. If he has a chance, he has to stay positive.

It's pretty disingenuous for Randy to say that "he has never run a negative campaign and never will" considering the fact that up until his first run for Congress in '04, he essentially had no opposition or token opposition each time he ran for the State Senate. I also believe he benefitted from the backlash that was created when his divorce papers were leaked to the press.

Rottenchester, I agree with your opinion on Mr. Kuhl's ad being of more negative tone than Mr. Massa's. With the hide-and-seek theme, Mr. Massa's is more "cute".

But I must ask again, the entire commentary and humor of Mr.Kuhl's statement about not running a negative ad campaign was based on his statement made in the debate about "comparison ads". Is it not hypocritical to laugh at Mr. Kuhl, but support Mr. Massa?

As for the impact of divorse papers being leaked to the press, completely agree that this was a bad form and a positive windfall for Mr.Kuhl. If these papers had not been leaked, we would be talking about Congresswoman Barend rather than Mr. Kuhl.

Just to be clear, Kuhl's negative ad statement wasn't made in the context of a discussion of comparison ads - Massa made the distinction between comparison ads and negative ads in an interview, not the debate.

That said, I think that a Massa supporter who laughed at Kuhl's negative ad comment might buy Massa's distinction and say that his ads are comparison, not negative. But it's a pretty thin line, IMO.

I don't think Sam Barend was a winning candidate in the 29th. The divorce paper dust-up just put another nail in her coffin.