12/09/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2013

Why I Like Negative Ads

My suggestion last week that developing the critical thinking skills of the electorate could be a solution to the country's campaign finance woes was met with a reasonable objection that advertisers have always been able to manipulate the public and always will. For just as decades of knowledge regarding the health hazards of smoking has not immunized people from the marketing lures of the tobacco industry, so too negative ads will continue to be effective, and thus our only solution is to choke off funding for such ads through legislation or the courts.

One response to this argument is that the country did experience a cultural shift between the Mad Men era when smoking was considered as natural as eating (or drinking at work), and today where tobacco companies are forced to try to get people to start smoking (as opposed to just convincing an automatically smoking public to switch brands). While part of this social change was driven by coercion (in the form of smoking bans at restaurants, for example), for the most part legislation ostracizing smokers was only put in place after shunning smoking and smokers became a societal norm.

Obviously, the switch to a non-smoking society wasn't total. But arguing that changes which took place over the last 30 years are irrelevant, given that people are still addicting themselves to tobacco and smoking themselves to death, is an example of the "Nirvana Fallacy," the fallacy which states that if a solution isn't perfect then it can't be treated as a success.

Similarly, I would never claim that 100 percent of the American public must learn and internalize the critical thinking skills covered in Critical Voter before such a project can begin to bear fruit. For even if more people started looking at political advertising in a new light, that could lead to some of the social changes we seek (including limiting the effectiveness of monetary campaign donations which could thus limit the ability of money to drive ideas from the public square).

Another commenter liked my suggestion and recommended that it be implemented by simply voting against any candidate that does too much advertising. But such a shortcut faces a problem if all the major candidates flood the airwaves with comparable amounts of ads (something that happened quite a bit last election). In such cases, a straight "Damn the Advertisers" strategy would leave us with no option but to vote for marginal candidates whose campaigns do no advertising (which could lead to some long-term benefits, but only at the cost of turning ourselves into one-dimensional voters -- in this case the dimension being who advertises vs. who doesn't).

I also have a personal problem with this suggestion since I actually like negative ads.

I know this might seem counterintuitive, given that negative ads suffer from so many shortcomings critical-thinking wise. For example, negative ads often play loose with the facts (or substitute snippets of information -- such as quotes taken out of context or newspaper headlines unrelated to accusations being made in the ad). Then you've got those devices such as ominous music and lighting tricks, all designed to short circuit reason in favor of an emotional reaction.

But negative ads (unlike positive ones which generally just show a candidate smiling at his or her children or talking to a crowd of voters with a concerned look on his or her face) at least present an argument: some kind of case that the candidate is making to try to convince the public. And once we've got an argument, we've got something to work with.

Now I'm first to admit that the arguments inside a negative ad can sometimes be hard to find, encrusted as they are with manipulative imagery, sound effects and breathless rhetoric. But I don't think I saw a single negative ad broadcast during the last election that didn't contain a central argument that could be extracted and analyzed. And such analysis can lead to genuine knowledge.

The problem is that most of us are not trained in the use of critical thinking tools (such as syllogisms and argument maps) that could help us turn those manipulative ads into sources of understanding. But as I mentioned previously, it doesn't require a Ph.D. in philosophy to utilize these techniques. In fact, I suspect that everyone reading this piece does more complex things every day.

But there is an art to the process, an art which has largely been lost in our modern age when few people study logic and argumentation, and rhetoric (once a cornerstone of education) is only understood as "mere rhetoric" (an abandonment which has left us at the mercy of those who have not forgotten how to use these powerful tools of persuasion).

So let's take a look at a couple of negative ads and see what we can do with them if we treat them not with disgust (if they attack the candidate we like) or with indifference or glee (if they attack the guy we hate), but instead as a potential source of enlightenment.

To be continued...