Political Advertising Had New Twist in 1994

By Rodgers, Kim | THE JOURNAL RECORD, November 26, 1994 | Go to article overview

Political Advertising Had New Twist in 1994


Rodgers, Kim, THE JOURNAL RECORD


The vision of U.S. Rep. David McCurdy's nose growing and face becoming demonic as a voice-over describes his remarks or promises may well be the most vivid image of the 1994 campaign in Oklahoma.

It is also part of a growing nationwide trend toward negative campaign advertising, according to Julian Kanter, curator of the Political Commercial Archive at the University of Oklahoma.

What is new about 1994 campaign advertising, in both the Oklahoma U.S. Senate race and nationwide, is the Republican effort to link Democratic candidates with President Clinton in voters' minds.

"Bill Clinton was the demon of the 1994 election. Republicans understood very well the level of unpopularity of President Clinton, and they tried to tie as many Democrats as possible to Clinton in hopes that the unpopularity is transferable," Kanter said.

The most frequent user of this tactic in Oklahoma was U.S. Rep. Jim Inhofe in his contest with McCurdy for David Boren's U.S. Senate seat. His "Big Spender" ad showed McCurdy nominating Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, with the conclusion, "Without Congressman McCurdy, we might not have a President Clinton."

Similarly, gubernatorial candidate Frank Keating linked his opponent, Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren, to Gov. David Walters, with a description of Walters's legal problems and "questions" about Mildren's own activities.

Inhofe and Keating won. Did the attempts of Republicans to link Democratic opponents to other Democrats like Clinton and Walters have any effect on the election's outcome?

"I think voters would have ousted the Democrats no matter what ads had aired," Kanter said.

"The public's unhappiness with the state of affairs in Washington was so profound, and they believed that the Democrats having control of the legislative and executive branches was responsible for their dissatisfaction.

"People like simple solutions to problems, and the simple way to fix the problem was, in many voters' minds, to get rid of the Democrats.

"This was true even at the state level, which has nothing to do with Washington. Even popular incumbent Democrats lost their races, like (Texas governor) Ann Richards."

The Pinocchio ad is an example of negative campaigning, which Kanter defines as "that portion of campaign activity that focuses on the opponent." He distinguishes between negative advertising and the nature of the ad _ its spirit, degree of honesty, accuracy, fairness and relevancy to the campaign.

Negative ads can work, provided the attack is seen by the viewer as fair, accurate and relevant to the job, Kanter said. The reason they are effective is the public is already cynical about politics. But at the same time, the American public, at least that segment that answers political communications surveys, says it strongly dislikes negative ads.

"People say they find attack ads demeaning and irritating and are sometimes turned off of politics so much they may not even vote."

If negative ads are at least somewhat effective while potentially offensive to those majority of voters who say they don't like nasty ads, how does a candidate attack his or her opponent without alienating the voter?

One way is with humor. Gubernatorial candidates Jack Mildren and Wes Watkins both referred to manure in television spots. Inhofe attacked McCurdy's support of the federal Crime Bill by portraying heavy men waltzing in tutus. …

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