You’ve heard the argument: About two-thirds of a total of $5.19 billion spent on political advertising during the 2012 election year was spent on television. So selling a presidential candidate is really not that much different from selling a beer? No, they’re entirely different.
For example, consider the matter of market share. If you were Bud Light, your 28.3 percent share of the U.S. beer market made you No. 1 and a landslide winner over Coors Light, which in the same year captured a respectable 9.9 percent market share.
Politics are a lot more unforgiving. In 1976, Republican President Gerald Ford won 49 percent of the “market share” and not only lost his job but also was summarily evicted from his place of residence. Not to mention Democrat Al Gore, who in 2000 won 50.27 percent of the two-party vote and was forced to go before the nation and concede to Republican George W. Bush, his competitor who got a smaller “market share.”
However, there’s a much more important difference between the TV ads for a presidential candidate and those for any popular consumer product. The 2012 campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, between them, bought approximately 1 million TV spots. But totally unlike TV spots for toothpaste or beer, nearly 90 percent of the expensive TV ads created and purchased for both Romney and Obama were negative commercials attacking the opponent.
You will never catch Budweiser buying costly TV time to warn us not to drink Heineken or Corona because they may make you fat, give you bad breath or even a hangover. It’s not because the brewers are more noble and high-minded; it’s because they know that such attack ads would inevitably hurt the overall beer business.
Politics, with the possible exception of column writing, is the most imitative of art forms. In 2004, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which keeps track of the data, 55 percent of Democrat John Kerry’s TV ads were positive and about his own record, biography or agenda, while Bush’s TV ads that year were 72 percent negative, emphasizing the shortcomings and defects of Kerry. Bush won in 2004, and so, too, did Obama in 2012, when his TV ads were slightly more negative than Romney’s.
There are only really two ways to run any campaign: the high road or the low road. The high road is when the candidate ideally tells voters what he proposes to do in office, such as: “I believe we can make our public schools great, but it will mean no tax cuts — maybe even a small tax increase and a smaller military.” The low-road campaign is not about what together we might achieve but instead about how intellectually and morally bankrupt my opponent is. In short, I may not be an Abraham Lincoln or a Franklin Roosevelt, but the other guy is an ethical leper who would steal a hot stove and then go back for the smoke.
This kind of attack politics, as we have learned painfully, does not end on Election Day. It can be found daily on Capitol Hill or along Pennsylvania Avenue. Cooperation and compromise, the lifeblood of a national democracy, become difficult if not impossible. The already-diminished public confidence in our national government and in our collective capacity is further depleted. No parent swells with pride at a child’s ambition to make politics her career. Public service, which deserves respect, is mocked.
No, we do not "sell" our political candidates like we sell beer; it’s much worse and a lot more harmful.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.