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October 20, 2019

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Attack Ads 101: How do political jabs make it on TV?

attack ad

The attack ad “Just One Wrong Move” uses Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s words as a backdrop, with a narrator explaining the consequences of a Trump presidency.

“They’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on false commercials, and it’s a disgrace. So what we’ll do — I guess we’ll sue them.”

On Oct. 5 at a rally in Henderson, that was Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s response to an unspecified attack ad suggesting he was critical of the military — one of countless ominous pronouncements about candidates up and down the ballot broadcast on TV this campaign cycle. They’ve aired the heaviest in swing states like Nevada.

By the numbers

In 2016, candidates are projected to spend $11.7 billion on advertising:

• $7.1 billion: TV ads (network and cable)

• $1.2 billion on digital

• $916.1 million on radio

• $882 million on newspaper

• $752.7 million on telemarketing

• $396.1 million on out-of-home ads (billboards, bus wraps, etc.)

• $386.8 million on direct mail

In keeping with the tradition of modern American politics, the tone of spots aired in Las Vegas has been consistently nasty.

However, not just any ad passes the television smell test. A combination of restrictions from the Federal Communications Commission and discretion from local TV stations (at least on state and local elections) prevents the most egregious messaging from reaching local viewers.

Here’s a look at what’s allowed, what’s not and the power of individual stations in ad oversight.

Candidate ads

Paid for by the campaign of a person running for office.

• Requirements:

— Must have a clear picture of the candidate’s face visible during the ad, text saying the candidate paid for the ad and an endorsement saying he or she accepts the ad’s message.

— Don’t have to source any claims made, but as it’s an official campaign-sponsored ad, the candidate could be held liable for any misstatements.

• Rules are different for candidates in federal and state/local races:

— TV stations are required by law to accept ads from candidates for federal office.

— TV stations do not have to accept ads for state or local races. If they do accept ads, opposing candidates are entitled to equal opportunity to appear on that station’s airwaves.

• Only legally qualified candidates with registered campaigns can run candidate ads. Anyone hoping to earn votes as a write-in candidate can pay for issue ads as a third party.

• Candidate ads are entitled to the lowest rate class of the ad time they purchase.

Issue/third-party ads

Focused on an issue on the election ballot. Anyone can run these ads.

• Requirements:

— Must have the name of the sponsoring organization clearly visible during the ad.

— Must correctly source any claims.

— TV stations do not have to accept issue/third-party ads.

• What if third-party ads are paid for by a political action committee? The PAC will be charged the same rate as any TV advertisement.

Can TV stations censor political ads?

No. They do, however, require a statement identifying who paid for the ad if it doesn’t already have one, and they can reject the content if it’s found to be too offensive. KLAS TV’s Vice President Lisa Howfield said in that scenario, producers would work with the ad agency to amend the content. Howfield, who became the Las Vegas-based station’s VP and general manager last year, couldn’t think of an instance in which a political ad was inappropriate for broadcast. Most are ready to air immediately, and others require slight changes to captions or need revisions to sourcing, she said.

UNLV journalism professor Stephen Bates says that because TV stations can’t censor political ads and must accept federal-level submissions, some candidates seek federal office just to run explicit advertising — especially anti-abortion candidates. In the 2012 election cycle, Democratic presidential candidate Randall Terry produced anti-abortion ads that violated YouTube’s terms of use, but TV broadcasters were required to air them during his presidential candidacy.

On the fringe of that phenomenon was porn media mogul Larry Flynt, who threatened to show sexually explicit ads during his 1984 presidential campaign.

“As far as sexually explicit material that doesn’t reach the high obscenity bar, profanity and violence, all are protected by the First Amendment,” Bates explained. “The FCC forbids profanity before 10 p.m., but its rules wouldn’t apply to political ads.”

Review process

Howfield says that she or one of two other newsroom employees reviews advertisements before they hit the air, to make sure each spot is in compliance with FCC rules. Above all, Howfield’s team checks that:

• All claims made on “issue ads” are properly sourced.

• The sponsoring candidate, campaign or organization is clearly stated.

“You have to visually be able to know who paid for the ad,” Howfield said. “If that information isn’t there, sometimes we’ll charge them and fix it for them, and sometimes they’ll resend us the ad.”

Is there value to negative campaigning?

In 2008, as John McCain and Barack Obama were contending for the presidency, Vanderbilt University political science professor John G. Geer wrote an op-ed for Politico about the misunderstood nature of the attack ad. The author of “In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns” asserted that “the real source” of negativity in presidential campaigns was the media’s coverage.

“When was the last time you read or heard a story about a positive ad? Negative ads get the coverage, and the nastiest ones often draw the most attention,” he wrote, adding that such attention gave consultants producing the ads great incentive to make them nasty.

Geer also pointed out that negative ads could serve a purpose: “We need to develop clearer standards of judgment about what defines negativity and to consider systematic evidence about these ads. We need, in short, to rise above our own partisan instincts. If we do so, we will realize that negativity has played an important role in this country since its founding. It may not be fun, and it may even get ugly at times, but we need to know candidates’ shortcomings as well as their strengths. And whether we like it or not, negative ads serve an important role in the democratic process.”

Attack ad hall of fame

Daisy girl

Double talk

The University of Chicago Press, which published Geer’s book in 2006, is home to his Attack Ad Hall of Fame. It includes what many consider the most infamous example, which aired only once as a paid advertisement in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

• “Daisy Girl”: A sweet little girl is plucking petals off a flower, counting as she goes. Then a nuclear countdown follows an extreme closeup into her eye, ending in a mushroom cloud. Johnson’s voice says, “These are the stakes: To make a world in which all God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” On the ad’s 50th anniversary, USA Today called it “the most famous, or notorious, political attack ad in U.S. history.”

• “Double Talk”: One of the oldest examples, from 1952, backed Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. The cartoon featured a two-headed GOP candidate engaging in double talk over issues such as the Korean War. But Stevenson ultimately lost big to war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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