This presentation brought to you by the Fairness Coalition explores the reasons why political advertising on television is dysfunctional and why it will never improve. It also gives us an idea about how we can change it...
An Introduction Candidates have a right to Free Speech – just the same as anyone else in this country. However there is something inherently dysfunctional about political advertising on television. It’s not new – it’s always been dysfunctional. It keeps getting worse and worse yet remarkably politicians still think they need it and voters still pay attention. We predict this may be coming to end very soon. It will end for two reasons; 1 – because it is beyond annoying and we now have many more choices in how we view television – choices that allow us to bypass annoying ads, 2 – because TV advertising for politics has always been unfair and is getting worse. Let’s examine why.
The Daisy Ad told us that Senator Goldwater would nuke the planet if elected. Peace-loving Lyndon Johnson then proceeded to plunge us headlong into the Vietnam war.
Reason 1 Political Advertising on Television is unfair because – not everyone can afford to have ads. Despite several attempts over the years to help with this obvious inequality the few safeguards we have (campaign finance laws and matching funding) are fast eroding as a result of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court last year. The Court has ruled that any laws restricting unlimited spending somehow bar the free speech of billionaires and multi-nationals. The free speech of folks like us was conveniently overlooked in that decision.
Reason 2 Political Advertising on Television is unfair because – 30 seconds will never be enough time to present a meaningful amount of information. Taking complex issues and crafting messages directed towards some sort of collective 5 th grade cognitive level and then shoving that simplified thought into 30 seconds does everyone a great disservice – the candidate, the public, the nation – all of us. Contrary to popular mythology, the American public is not stupid and we should be treated as such. The issues deserve more discussion and candidates should be vetted and tested…
The typical 30 second political television advertisement is filled with terms designed to provoke extreme psychological reactions. Why – because who has time to sort out an issue in 30 seconds?
Reason 3 Political Advertising on Television is unfair because – 30 seconds is not enough time to establish any sort of policy message but it is just enough time to craft a simplified negative accusation. The attack ad is the backbone of all political advertising in America today. At some point in the near future it is reasonable to expect that nearly all political TV ads will become negative. That’s not fair to us, to the issues, to our political system. It is a quirky outcome related to the cost and nature of the television medium but it should not drive our process…
Reason 4 Political Advertising on Television is unfair because – it turns many off from participating in politics altogether. Anything that is partially or totally designed to dishearten or disgust people into not voting is inherently unfair both to those people and the system as a whole. There are many people now in the political business who count on voter disgust to help reduce voter turnout in areas where that might help their causes or candidates.
No one said Negative political ads on TV were intelligent – in fact the contrary is almost universally the case.
Reason 5 Political Advertising on Television is unfair because – TV ads will never advance the national dialog or debate. History has shown this to be true. Ads often become excuses for dialog or debate instead of the issues or positions themselves. This only further distracts the public from a real debate and allows candidates to evade ever having to fully explain themselves. This is getting worse – with the 2010 being one of the worst elections on record in terms of understanding just what it was candidates were saying they’d do if elected.
Reason 6 Political Advertising on Television is unfair because – it is lowering our collective IQ. Political Advertising has directly or indirectly lowered our collective expectations for how our political system should operate and how intelligent our candidates should be. It has lowered the standards for discourse and behavior as well. This is unfair to us and to future generations and it is downright embarrassing.
We have a choice – we can help end political ads on television by not watching them – and by demanding there be an intelligent, adult discussion of the issues.
Reason 7 Political Advertising on Television is unfair because – it seldom if ever tells us what politicians will actually do if they are elected. If we were to take a survey of any 100 political ads chosen at random, what chance if any would we have of predicting the actions of a candidate based upon the inane messages broadcast in their TV ads ? Answer – almost none. There is a term called Truth in Advertising – it is meant to assess companies making claims about products. It has never been applied to politicians – but in an effort to make sure that never happens, political ads are generally devoid of any claims.
Conclusion No one likes political ads besides the consultants who produce them and the networks that run them. While they do represent a fiscal stimulus for one industry every few years – they do far more harm than go. So how can we end this dysfunctional practice ? There are several choices or approaches: 1 – We can stop watching them. 2 – We can demand candidates stop running them. 3 – We can ask all politicians to agree to a standard canon of ethics on political communication and behavior. Other professions provide such guidelines – why can’t this one?