Ban the Ad!

I’ve been saying for years that political ads should be banned from television. Now, don’t go crying First Amendment, or free speech, or equal time. Ads are bought, cash on the barrelhead; nobody has a right to them, and television stations are not obligated to sell time to anyone who comes a-calling. Congress banned cigarette ads in 1971; in my opinion political TV ads are as hazardous to the health of the nation as cigarettes are to the body.

In 2007, CNN reported that in the previous year, “$2.3 billion was spent on political and issue-advocacy TV commercials.” In Oct. 2010, The Caucus (The New York Times’ politics and government blog) reported that “political spending on TV ads this election cycle…is on track to hit $3 billion by the November election… .”

Politico.com reported that the 2008 presidential campaigns of Obama and McCain combined topped 1 billion dollars. Now, that’s all campaign spending, not just what was spent on TV ads, but spending for the 2012 election (all races) is expected to surpass previous levels, and it seems safe to say a big chunk of change will go to television advertising. In fact, in “US Broadcast Television: US Broadcasters Get Ready for Record-Breaking Political Ad Spending in 2012” (June 2011), Moody’s Investor Service predicted that 2012 ad revenue would grow by 9 – 18% over 2010 levels.

I haven’t been able to find reliable stats on what percentage of campaign costs go to television commercials. But we do know that millions of dollars are spent on television advertising. Let’s not kid ourselves; even without advertising on television, candidates would need to raise millions of dollars: staff payroll, travel, newspaper ads, campaign offices and whatever else it takes to run a campaign cost a pretty penny. But what if TV ads were taken out of the equation? Campaigns wouldn’t need to raise so much money. They could spend less time wooing big donors; perhaps they wouldn’t need the corporate participation that the 2010 Citizens United ruling allows.

But this isn’t just about money; it’s also about the fact–and I use that word deliberately–that political television ads provide no substantive information; they offer nothing that helps voters make reasoned, informed decisions when they go to the polls. In fact, I’ll go farther than that and say what they do provide, too much of the time: misinformation, disinformation, and doublespeak. I believe they do harm.

Television ads, by design, by their very nature, get under our skin, they reach us on an emotional level and convince us that either we have something we don’t want (the horror of halitosis, the shame of a dirty floor), or lack something we need (safer tires, plastic wrap). They grab us with fear (I might be lonely forever because of these dingy teeth) and then they give us hope (my family might sit down together and be happy if I serve this macaroni and cheese). They’re fast and furious, delivering the one-two punch. Fear, hope. Problem, solution. What they don’t do is deal in subtleties.

Political commercials are no different. Their purpose is to deliver tiny, digestible generalizations viewers can remember and repeat. Their method is to get in quickly, stir up emotion, and get out. Vote for this candidate if you don’t want your children blown up by a bomb. Vote for that candidate and we might end up with a traitor in office. It’s a chicken in every pot taken to the nth degree, wee bits of vaguely truthful and possibly relevant information dressed up in a red, white, and blue fat suit.

And since these 15- or 30- or 60-second bits of brainwash are delivered right to our homes, ready-made for passive reception, we may fail–most of us probably do fail–to seek out actual information about what the candidates stand for, who they really are. And because as a nation we’ve grown habituated to conducting campaigns this way, I believe the candidates themselves have lost a sense of obligation to deliver more than slogans, sound bytes, and slurs.

Where does this leave voters? Under-informed, certainly. We may feel we kind of like this candidate, or we don’t really trust that one, but what we don’t know is what we might expect of them if they take office. And isn’t that what we need to know? Isn’t where candidates stand on actual issues the information we need before we pull the lever or punch the chad?

Of course it is. And that’s information that cannot be delivered in a television commercial. It simply cannot. Not only do political advertisements fail to provide substantive information about candidates and issues, they threaten the democratic process, a process that is no place (or should be no place) for the manipulations, the no-shades-of-gray, the necessary lies of television commercials.

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2 Responses to Ban the Ad!

  1. Art Greenberg says:

    I totally agree. Couple the mindlessness of content with the need for frenetic, chaotic delivery (most media today), and we have a reason for why children don’t learn.

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