The TV Attack Ad Gets a New Lease on Life

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While we’re talking about our new Politics 2.0 package and yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions, let’s take a moment to ponder the future of that less than beloved institution, the 30-second TV attack ad.

In “The Attack Ad’s Second Life,” Leslie Savan and I examined the idea that the newfound ease of video production and distribution will kill off the negative election ad. Are the days of Willie Horton and “Harold—call me” over? Are we headed into an unregulated, bottomless pit of “macaca” moments on-demand and YouTube mash-ups? Advertising Age columnist and On the Media Host Bob Garfield thinks that TV ads are definitely on the way out—and that’s a good thing: “Nobody is going to opt in to see somebody’s legislative votes misrepresented in an attack ad—because why would you?” Yet that’s not to say that TV ads won’t play a role in 2008, or that they won’t be as lowdown and dirty as ever.

And now, a new Supreme Court ruling virtually ensures that that will be the case. In another 5-4 decision, the court struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law that prohibited pre-election ads paid for by unions or corporations. The majority ruled that such ads can not be banned unless they explicitly encourage voters to vote for or against a candidate. This will no doubt open the floodgates for a new slew of “issue ads”—attack ads that not so subtly go after candidates under the guise of informing voters. What this really means—for online fundraising, for swing voters, for the future of McCain-Feingold—remains to be seen. But it seems clear that even if the 2008 race is the TV attack ad’s death rattle, its demise will be anything but pretty.

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