There are probably a lot of reasons why political attack ads work: either because they get attention on their own, or because of the endless discussions that turn the content over and over, rehashing it for the sake of an argument about the debasing of political discussion in Canada. And fair enough, those are valid points. We would be better off without sloganeering that immediately attacks policies at the knees, hacking them down to stump material. But the reason attack ads - and the slogans they trumpet - still work has probably less to do with our general inability to have a substantive discussion on policy, and more to do with the fact that we’ve taught ourselves not to everywhere outside of the realm of political discussion.
The argument that Marshall McLuhan made in Understanding Media - his famous piece on the postmodern condition of electric communication - was about how our mass media affect our societal actions -- that “we shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” In that light, we could worry that attack ads could be ultimately change the overall political discourse in Canada. That is, if we were to limit it that much.
However, McLuhan also wrote about our willingness to regress to a form of communication based on abstracted signs, and given that, attack ads exemplify more a symptom of a current, ongoing problem than the potential cause of it.
In his essay, 'The Eternal Now', Lewis H. Lapham discusses the effects of electronic communication and the advent of what McLuhan described as the graphic revolution as eliminating the boundaries of space and time insomuch as it obliterates cause and effect.
Whereas typographic man assumed a causal relationship between two events - that A followed B or that, for instance, people who made things would measure their accomplishments over longer, linear timelines - graphic man, Lapham writes, “imagines himself living in the enchanted garden of the eternal now.” We are transported, he says, back to a kind of neolithic past where we worship the objects of our own invention and where the individual voice “disappears into a collective... consciousness”.
“If all the world can be seen simultaneously, and if all mankind’s joy and suffering is always and everywhere present,... nothing reasonably follows from anything else. Sequence becomes merely additive instead of causative,” he writes.
In a postmodern world, presenting information does not require a cause-and-effect discussion. It is reliant entirely on signs.
So, for instance, we should approach the seemingly random addition of being “tough on human smuggling” into a new Conservative Party ad as being anything but random. It is an image for the sake of an image. And because of the trust we have learned to instill in the abstracted, flickering shadows that dance on our walls as divine icons, it’s effective.
Attack ads are just that - advertising, and we ought to discuss them in the same critical parameters as we would any other part of mass culture - not as some separate entity that operates apart from it because we only see them once in a while. They are wholly derived from our present collective condition, and serve as flash points to highlight our political and cultural consciousness. They are, in fact, a critical example of how we communicate.
Attack ads offer a stark example of why we should be mindful of our faith in the everything-all-the-time nature of our media world that has subverted causal relationships between ideas and replaced them with signs devoid of any signifier. As Theodor Adorno pointed out in The Culture Industry, with an ultimately nihilistic and all-knowing monopolistic culture, advertising eventually becomes information.