The 30-Second Smear


US politics has long been renowned for its scything negative ads. They’re a gladiatorial sport. In recent years there have been political ads linking candidates from everything from: Satan and serial killing, to adultery and non filing of tax returns.

Some can be utterly nasty and go straight after the candidate’s personal lives. Where else but America would a political ad open with the line: "Why did Rand Paul tie a woman up?" Some can advocate shooting one’s opponents and others simply accuse them of speaking French. They may even use the Klu Klux Klan.

Then there’s the renowned "demon sheep" advertisement used by Carly Fiorina in 2010. An ad so expensive, yet so shockingly bad and jaw droppingly nasty that it truly defies description. It’s the Waterworld of political ads. It’s folly writ large. All you need to know is that it goes for two minutes; involves satanic, red eyed sheep and was clearly dreamed up by someone who just sold all their possessions to buy the biggest cocaine line ever known.

These days political ads have as much money thrown into them as an expensive HBO episode. For example, there’s the hilarious "Wizard of Oz" ad, where Democrat Nancy Pelosi is painted as the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s one of those ads so ludicrous and over the top that it’s impossible to satirise. Yet the budget stretched to cover munchkins and CGI flying monkeys.

Surely, considering the jaded, politic weary American public, you may imagine that this 2012 Republican primary would lay off the vitriol. Oh, no.

This primary has been especially withering. It’s been a good, old-fashioned smiting contest. Partly because it has been seen as a fight between the evangelicals (Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich) the moderates (Jon Huntsmann, Mitt Romney) and the incomprehensible (Rick Perry). So it’s not just been casting the first stone — more the first truckload of rubble.

The primary season in a high speed digital age is a hard slog. The primaries come thick and fast. Each state is a separate battleground with its own issues and concerns. Candidates have little time or resources to spend there. What worked in Iowa may not work in Florida or Nevada. So, as the race progresses, there’s no time for niceties. It’s: "Hi, I’m this guy. I love the waving cornstalks of your state. Want to see how despicable this other guy is?" Because of the fast and furious nature of the primaries a killer 30-second video spot can mean far more than a campaign rally. It establishes a narrative. Not just of yourself but of the rival. Once that narrative is established it’s hard to shake off. Especially if the video goes viral.

Consequently, it’s gotten moral. It’s gotten personal. And even Republican elders like Karl Rove have been publicly alarmed about the negativity.

Watching the ads one could see why: there was a raw crudity in the attack. For instance, one Ron Paul video going after Newt Gingrich has a breathless, shrill female narrator intoning Newt’s crimes over an urgent, Mission Impossible style music track. It’s filled with anonymous voiceovers kicking the steel capped boot in ("he hasn’t got a skeleton in his closet, he’s got a whole graveyard in there"; "he’s the absolute symbol of that corrupt system"). There’s absolutely nothing to back it up, no evidence of any corruption and sadly no skeletons — but who cares? Newt comes out looking like one of the worst villains from a Die Hard movie.

Newt responded vigorously with a "documentary" on the corporate bloodshed unleashed by Mitt Romney — a film called "The King Of Bain". It’s a documentary, but only in the same way that "25 Reasons To Invest In BHP Steel" is a documentary. It runs for 28 minutes (!) and you come out feeling like you’ve watched the entire Nuremberg trials. Mitt is portrayed as one of the Corporate Undead razing small town America and leaving smouldering ruins in his wake. Sadly, this may have backfired as it only made Mitt look more human than normal.

However, the exciting element this time round is the rise of the Super PAC. Despite its Nintendo name, the Super PAC wields real power. It’s a shadowy group, which, in theory is independent but in practice does one candidate’s dirty work. They usually have a vague yet stirring name like "The United States Of Awesome" or ""Americans For A Fluffier Future". The reality is that they are Trojan horses used to dump virulent toxic waste on the other candidates. It’s a new political phenomenon that allows the actual candidate to maintain a Doris Day like innocence as the Super PAC ravenously trashes everyone else on his or her behalf.

In Australia negative attack ads by third party groups have certainly had some success. Consider the mining groups’ successful strikes against Julia Gillard or the Unions wave of advertisements against Work Choices in the 2007 election. These resonated better with the public partly because they were cleverly done; partly because they used real, human mammals (as opposed to that actor from Packed To The Rafters) and partly because they weren’t seen as being the obvious tools of a political party.

Newt Gingrich was crushed in Iowa due to a barrage of attack ads on him from Super PACs linked to Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Then Romney was floored in South Carolina by similar shadowy third party groups. As the primaries progress the advertising has only got nastier. For instance, an ad airing in Florida by Mitt Romney paints Gingrich as a lackey of mortgage company Freddie Mac and the person who allowed the housing crisis. Setting a new tone in viciousness, Gingrich is virtually portrayed as being the cause of everything bad: from dry rot to Disney musicals.

There’s almost nothing to back any of it up. However, modern day politics is based on the "throw enough mud" school — and that’s an educational facility that has achieved some amazing academic results.

The message is: negative ads work effectively but are even more successful when they come from an indirect source.

Could we see Australians For A Riper Tomorrow unleash negative attack ads on Tony Abbott? Or Australians For A Ripper Tomorrow turn the knife into Julia Gillard? Or even Australians For A Sterile, Self Interested, Yet Pretty Fun Future — doing ads against Family First?

Time will tell how successful the onslaught of negative advertisements are in these primaries. But, as with everything else coming out of America, you can be sure Australian political apparatchiks will be watching closely.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.