Saturday, July 21, 2012

Let's Ban Political Ads!

There are many advantages to living here in Hawai'i, but one of the best is that in Presidential campaigns we don't matter.  The state population is small by national standards and our one puny little Electoral College vote doesn't warrant spending much time or money on us.  This means that we are spared the media blitz during election years that is targeted at those of you who live in more important "swing" states.

We used to live in Ohio, a state that is regularly a focus of intense campaigning. This meant lots of visits by the Presidential candidates or their surrogates, rallies, door-to-door canvasing, and a relentless barrage of 30-second t.v. spots.  This began during the primary season and continued right to the November election.

I was reminded of the obnoxiousness of the t.v. ads recently when I had to make a short trip to the mainland to attend a funeral.  The airwaves were full of 30-second ads for Romney and Obama, all of which seemed designed to be low on information and high on emotional impact. Careful factual analysis of the messages in many of these ads would reveal them to be vacuous, but then they aren't supposed to be logical or informative.  The media specialists who create these spots are masters at manipulating image, innuendo, and emotional associations (you can enjoy recent ads from this year's campaigns at Stanford's Political Communications Lab web site).  The messages may be logically weak but they can be highly effective in swaying voter opinion anyway, particularly as part of negative advertising campaigns.  This is why candidates and their supporting organizations spend so much money on media, estimated to be nearly $100 million for this month of July alone, according to Washington Post's Dan Eggan.

In the 2008 election, the total spent on media reached a staggering $359 million (see the Center for Responsive Politics for more detailed information).  The total campaign spending by McCain and Obama during that election was more that $1 billion (!) according to data released by the Federal Election Commision.  This time around more relaxed accountability rules for donations via so-called "Social Welfare Organizations," like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, and the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations can donate unlimited amounts to "SuperPacs" are likely to push spending even higher.  If it weren't for the questionable ways in which this money is spent, we could regard it as a nice economic stimulus package.

Political ads have become increasingly negative over the last 20-30 years.  According to Shanto Iyengar, Director of the Stanford Political Communication Lab, negative campaigning in American politics blossomed as an effective strategy in the 1980's, pioneered by Fox News' Roger Ailes who was a campaign consultant to Ronald Reagan and George Bush at that time. Although the Republicans were the first to use negative campaigning effectively, Iyengar points out that the Democrats caught up quickly and are just as apt to use it as a campaign strategy.  His research shows that negative campaigning is particularly prominent in close elections and tends to depress voter turnout and polarize the electorate.  Given the likely closeness of the Obama/Romney race, then, we are probably going to see more and more negative ads this time around, and the campaigns will unfortunately reinforce the extreme polarization that is now paralyzing our government and will further reduce public perceptions of congress, already at an all-time low.  Whoopee.
Political ads are not held to the same "truth-in-advertising" principle that governs commercial advertising.  This is because they are considered "political speech" and are therefore protected by the First Amendment, to the point that broadcasters are required by law to air ads even if they contain demonstrably false information.  As a Time Magazine analysis of the 2008 election put it:
The noble idea undergirding what otherwise seems like a political loophole is the belief that voters have a right to uncensored information on which to base their decisions. Too often, however, the result is a system in which the most distorted information comes from the campaigns themselves. And as this year's presidential race is showing, that presents an opportunity for a candidate willing to go beyond simple distortions and exaggerations by making repeated and unapologetic use of objectively false statements.
So far I'd say the "this year" referred to in this analysis applies equally well to the current 2012 election.  Two online sources of unbiased examinations of the truth or falseness of  political statements that I find useful are and , which I check regularly to get a more objective assessment of current campaign claims. Don't go to these sites expecting to support your hunch that one side is far more truthful than the other -- so far as I can tell the facts are abused about equally.  But the careful analyses of positions and statements (not just ads) can be very informative.

Shanto Iyengar points out that a growing trend in broadcast journalism has been to focus on political ads as news stories, which often simply gives them free air time and reduces a factual analysis to a matter of  "he-said-she-said."  In fact, savvy media consultants craft ads with this media attention in mind. For those voters who missed seeing the ads at other times, watching a news broadcast almost guarantees being exposed to at least some of them. Those who did see them during regular programming are exposed a second time.  In general news media attention to ad content rather than policy positions and proposals for solving problems may reinforce the negative tone of the election process and add to the polarization.  At the very least, focusing on ads and campaign strategy reduces coverage of more substantive information about candidates and their positions.  As Iyengar puts it: "in place of candidate positions and past performance on the issues, reporters gravitate toward the more entertaining facets of the campaign: the horse race, the advertising, the strategy, and whenever possible, instances of scandalous or unethical behavior."

Can the internet save us from this media morass?  There is no doubt that campaigning is incorporating more online technology as strategists try to reach the growing number of voters don't watch much t.v. but spend a lot of time online.  A recent report by Ryan Grim estimates that about 25% of consultant expenditures during this election cycle are going to online efforts.  And online ad campaigns seem to be effective. For example, the consulting firm Chong & Koster targeted some Florida voters with an average of five ads a day on Facebook, encouraging a no vote on a proposition that would have increased school class sizes. Voters exposed to the ads were more likely to vote no than a typical voter -- and more likely to oppose it than a typical Democrat. 

Online technology offers more than just a digitized medium for delivering the same ads, however.  Facebook and other social media are potentially powerful tools for linking candidate supporters and actively involving them in the campaign.  For instance, in one study described by Ryan Grim voter turnout was increased by messages from Facebook "friends" and people were more likely to remember information about the election when it came from a "friend" than from less personal sources.  As one top media consultant put it, candidates should not underestimate the power of social networks and peer-to-peer activism, and even though some politicians get nervous about the two-way nature of the online medium, they need to trust their supporters to fight for them in the online political debate. Whether this kind of activism produces positive or negative outcomes for the country as a whole remains to be seen.  Surely it depends on the quality and thoroughness of the information it is based on -- and this brings us right back to the original question concerning the content of campaign rhetoric.

A glimmer of hope for our electoral process is that online resources give voters access to substantive information about candidate positions on issues that is given short-shrift in in 30-second t.v. or internet ads and in most t.v. news coverage of campaign developments. Iyengar's assessment of the internet in this regard is particularly optimistic: 
...[internet] technology at least makes it possible for voters to bypass or supplement media treatment of the campaign and access information about the issues that affect them. Rather than waiting for news organizations to report on the policies they might care about, voters can take matters into their own hands and visit candidate websites to examine their positions on the issues. This form of motivated exposure is hardly an impediment to deliberation: paying attention to what the candidates have to say on the issues facilitates issue-oriented voting; paying attention to the media circus does not. Thus, there is some reason to hope that the spread of new forms of unmediated communication will eventually provide a better way to inform and engage voters.
 "Eventually" can't come soon enough for me.

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