Commentary: Political Advertising

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What do you get when election season features a billionaire mayor and two mega-millionaire gubernatorial candidates? WNYC’s Brian Lehrer says you get a new format on TV.

LEHRER: The format is: all political advertising all the time, with short bursts of programming somewhere in between. Jon Corzine setting up Judge Judy, Doug Forrester after the verdict. The ubiquitous Mayor Mike with the baseball pre-game show, post-game show and in the seventh inning stretch. Take me out to the Bloomberg, take me out with the higher test scores.

But you may have noticed a big difference between the ads targeted to New York York and those aimed at New Jersey. Bloomberg’s commercials are relentlessly upbeat: He’s made the streets safer, the schools smarter, the job climate friendlier. Maybe today he’ll take credit for making the rain stop. He’s already taking credit for making you healthier.

ANNOUNCER: Breast cancer is too big a problem… Mike Bloomberg is changing that… Mike Bloomberg is the most pro-public health mayor I think our city has ever seen.

LEHRER: Are you feeling better already? Bloomberg’s commercials are designed to lull us into a state of reassurance about the Mayor’s competence. Any implication that Freddy Ferrer is less than competent goes unstated. The mayor has that luxury because he’s an incumbent, he’s in the lead, and Ferrer can’t afford the TV time to challenge the mayor’s notions of New York as Shangri-La.

New Jersey’s another story. It’s a war. Take this Corzine spot.

ANNOUNCER: (Ominous-sounding music).... Doug Forrester profits off our seniors, he’s the wrong prescription for NJ

LEHRER: Sad to say, the gubernatorial campaign is sounding like the worst little state assembly race on steroids. You know those races, usually dominated by radio ads: “Bill Jones wants sex offenders to move in next door to your daughter” versus “Bob Smith hates public schools and and he’s lying about my tax record. Do you want a liar representing you in Trenton?” Well now you have the same kind of petty distortion-filled race … but 30 million dollars worth, all day and all night, on TV. Take this Forrester spot.

ANNOUNCER: (same ominous-sounding music)... While Corzine voted to raise your taxes, he and his friends profit.

LEHRER: Nobody likes attacks ads, but the problem with them isn’t just that they sound negative. They spring from a strategy that harms democracy itself: Attack ads rarely flip voters from one candidate to another. Mostly, they turn voters off to the candidate they were leaning toward, and make them stay home. The result: lower voter turnout and alienation from the political process in general. As community leaders, both Corzine and Forrester should care about that. And as successful businessmen, they should know better. You don’t keep customers by just tearing down the competitors.

So whether it’s the Bloomberg juggernaut or the Corzine-Forrester fright machines, the only recourse is to beat them at their own game: ignore the ads and think for yourself. Pick the candidate who you believe is better for NY or NJ, then go out on Election Day and vote.