If you have seen the kinds of political attack ads that play on US television during the presidential campaigns you'll know how nasty they can get.

One ad called Hillary Clinton a crook, another spent a long time outlining why Donald Trump isn't fit to know the nuclear codes.

By contrast, our election campaigns are positively civil. A typical "attack" advert on New Zealand TV features some handsome kids rowing on a lake, music that sounds like Eminem and a two-second shot of the country's most useless rowers crammed into a dinghy, dressed in the colours of the opposition parties. Ooooh. Mean.

And if that's the way you prefer your elections - with a dash of decorum - it's apparently time to brace yourself. We're told attacks ads may pop up in this year's election.


The concern has arisen as a result of a recent Court of Appeal decision that changed the rules around advertising during election campaigns.

Up to now, our campaigns have been - by international standards - incredibly controlled. Only political parties have been allowed to run election ads in the three months before the ballot and they could only spend up to a set amount. Supporters like unions or business lobby groups could advertise in newspapers but the mass-audience media of TV and radio was a no-no.

But now, the Appeal Court has decided any one of us is allowed to advertise in the sacred space of radio and TV this upcoming election. The only caveat is a spending cap of $315,000 each and that we name and shame ourselves through the Electoral Commission.

Opposition parties are worried about this development and so they should be. Big money tends to favour parties on the right, so National and Act supporters are more likely than Labour and Green Party supporters to have the means to buy ads.

But it's a leap to say those TV and radio ads will necessarily be 30-second character assassinations of party leaders.

In fact, I dare anyone to run an attack ad on TV or radio this election and see how that goes down with the New Zealand public.

Every example of political attacking during an election campaign here has either backfired or stuck in our memories as outliers.

To find the best and perhaps only true example of a political attack ad in this country you have to go back to 1975. During that election campaign, National Party leader Robert Muldoon commissioned the infamous Dancing Cossacks ad, painting the Labour Government as communists. Muldoon might have won, but he'll forever be remembered as the guy who played dirty.


Since then, Nicky Hagar has been honing his own version of attack politics, developing a knack for completing book after book just in time for an election campaign. The latest, Dirty Politics, had virtually no impact on the popularity of those it took aim at - John Key and the National Party.

During the 2005 campaign, it's possible the Greens did suffer after the Exclusive Brethren published pamphlets comparing the Party to communists. The Greens claim it cost the party a seat in Parliament. But - after weeks of the media getting stuck into them - the impact on the Brethren was much worse. And to avoid a repeat after that stunt, Parliament passed the Electoral Finance Act.

It's hard to imagine us tolerating the kinds of TV attack ads the US public has grown accustomed to. But there's the warning. Americans have grown accustomed. Perhaps the vitriolic ads that play nowadays started as mild jibes decades ago.

It's impossible to rewrite our laws around advertising in time for this election, but they should be tightened nonetheless to avoid us eventually ending up where the US is now.