With the campaigns over, we can get back to nice ads

Greg Bean

I was so happy to turn the television on last night and see that the ubiquitous ads for erectile dysfunction medications were back in prime-time rotation and the tiresome attack ads from Robert Menendez and Tom Kean Jr. were finally gone.

I truly appreciate the photography in that ED ad where the couple are sharing separate bathtubs as they watch the sunset – I find it relaxing – and I really, really hated being told about a bazillion times that Bob Menendez is a crooked sleazebag and Kean Jr. is George Bush’s lapdog and wants to take away grandma’s Social Security. It got so bad that I told the seventh campaign caller the weekend before the election that if one more campaign intruded on my home life by calling on the phone, I was going to vote for the legalized marijuana guy out of pure spite.

Joe Piscopo called exactly five minutes later to remind me to vote (his third call, at that point). So I did.

You know, after months of that awful U.S. Senate campaign, I still can’t say for certain what either Menendez or Kean actually stands for – because talking about their platforms wasn’t a high priority – and I’d come to dislike both of them intensely. Any time your only option on Election Day is to stick a clothespin on your nose and cast your vote for the lesser of two weasels, there’s something very rotten in Denmark (or New Jersey).

I suppose we voters got what we deserved, however, because politicians wouldn’t spend all their money on negative advertising if it didn’t work. If we all made a solemn vow that we would never again, under any circumstances, vote for a politician who ran a single negative ad, the practice would stop tomorrow. But we apparently don’t have the will to do that, so the tactic will be employed in every election until Doomsday. And it will only get worse.

According to an Associated Press story published in late October, political parties across the nation had spent about $160 million in ads attacking various congressional candidates so far in the campaign. They’d spent about $17 million on positive, issues-oriented advertising.

For the math-challenged among us, that’s a ratio of almost 10 to 1, making this the most negative campaign in memory.

In 2004, according to the AP, the ratio was $5 worth of negative ads for every $6 in positive ads. If the current trend continues, by the time the next election rolls around, the only issues-oriented ad we’ll ever see is if we take a political science course at the community college and the professor has some old VCR tapes of “historical” election campaigns.

So which party was the worst offender? According to the AP, they’re about even, although the GOP spent slightly more on attack advertising this year. That slight disparity was explained by Ray Siedelman, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

“Negative ads only work in two situations,” Siedelman told the AP, “when you are incredibly desperate and when you’re incredibly close to the end.”

That pretty much sums up the New Jersey Senate campaign: two politicians afraid the voters will reject them if they campaign on their own merits and absolutely desperate to make the other guy look more dangerous to the fabric of our society than they suspect themselves to be. Nationally, the Republicans were obviously more desperate than the Democrats, although the millions they spent on negative advertising didn’t do them much good.

It might have been simply because there weren’t as many local races this season, but I think that for the most part, politicians in the Middlesex County and Monmouth County towns covered by Greater Media Newspapers behaved pretty well by comparison.

In Millstone Township, the advertising was every bit as despicable as ever, but that is largely due to the fact that the word desperate clearly defines perennial candidate John Pfefferkorn, and any campaign he’s involved in stinks to high heaven. Happily, Low Road John got the least number of votes of all four Township Committee candidates on the ballot, so maybe he’ll finally get the message that folks in Millstone would just like him to go away.

In Middletown, Democratic Township Committee candidate Patrick Short completely made up the campaign claim that the committee had voted to double its compensation. Deceptive advertising at its worst.

In many other communities, however, candidates for local office deserve a pat on the back. For example:

+ With the exception of a deceitful flier that was sent out in October by the campaign of Democrat Pat Menna, the advertising for the race between Republican John Curley and Menna for mayor of Red Bank was tasteful and issues-oriented. (Menna won, but only by about a hundred votes).

+ The races for the East Brunswick, Sayreville, South River, Helmetta, Milltown, North Brunswick and South Brunswick governing bodies were civil and issues-oriented from start to finish. Kudos all around.

+ Democrats James Polos and John Pulomena ran a print-advertising campaign for Middlesex County freeholder that was not only pleasing to the eye, but focused on their accomplishments and goals instead of their opponents’ shortcomings. Nice.

+ Despite the normal level of bickering and infighting, the race for two seats on the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders – Republicans Andrew Lucas and Anna Little, and Democrats Barbara McMorrow and Gregory Gibadlo – gave voters a clear choice of candidates based on the issues. The advertising from both camps was, for the most part, positive and dignified.

There were lots of other clean local races, and for them we are grateful. Now, if only the national campaigns would take a lesson – but I suppose we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.