Why (most) political advertising should be illegal

Posted on 03/14/12 7 Comments

Yesterday Glen Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary provided the annual Wahl Lectures at Taylor Seminary. Professor Stassen’s father was Harold Stassen, Governor of Minnesota (1939-43), President of the University of Pennsylvania, and perennial candidate for US president. During the Eisenhower administration Stassen worked closely with the president. According to Glen (who shared this anecdote at dinner following the lectures), when his father worked for the president he observed that Vice-President Richard Nixon was always concerned about the “wealthy donors”.

This, of course, is nothing new. Politicians have always been concerned (preoccupied?) with placating the interests of the wealthy and powerful. What is new(er) is the degree to which powerful elites have taken to sophisticated marketing techniques as a means to attain and retain power. The problem is explored in the little-known 2004 documentary “Our Brand is Crisis” (trailer available here). The film follows a group of American political strategists (including  James Carville) who are hired by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, candidate for President in the 2002 election in Bolivia. These strategists make their living “marketing candidates and branding campaigns” (as the trailer puts it). Did you catch that? Their rasion d’etre is not to inform and empower, it is to market and brand (aka subvert and manipulate). (Think for a moment of the estimated eight hundred billion dollars that will be spent by Republicans in this election year and the billions more by democrats, virtually all of it spinning and skewing, pandering and appealing, moving and manipulating.)

The film provides an extraordinary level of access into the inner workings of a campaign to subvert critical, reasoned thought. Early on the strategists decide that they should brand their campaign “crisis”. That is, if you do not vote for Lozada then political, economic and social crisis will ensue. Needless to say, this is a branding rooted in fear and emotional manipulation rather than in the facts. It gets Lozada elected, but at what a cost…

This leads me to a conclusion: I believe that manipulative political advertising should be illegal. Simple banners, buttons and bumper stickers are okay. I’m not out to declare old “I Like Ike” campaign buttons contraband. But concerted branding efforts (including commercials that strategically manipulate emotions, facts, and ultimately votes) are not okay.  This seems to me a no-brainer. Advertising products is very intentionally focused on subverting rational thought processes and leading to people making emotional (i.e. non-rational) decisions. This is tolerable when the product is toilet paper or a new car. But not when it is a political leader.

Is this a slippery slope against free speech? Perhaps. Is the line between information and manipulation hard to draw? Undoubtedly.

But why are people so concerned about free speech but not about the importance of free thought? After all, if you’ve been manipulated and indoctrinated then you have no free speech. Survey the electorate and ask them who they plan to vote for and you’ll find many strong opinions. Then ask them why they support that candidate and you’ll typically get horrible explanations like this:

I just trust her.

He talks tough.

I can tell he loves the Lord.

I thought his debate performance was great last night. (Where “debate performance” = one powerful soundbite in which the other opponent(s) were caught off guard and the hall erupted in raucous applause. Everyone knows that one powerful moment is worth two dozen calmly delivered and well articulated policy statements.)

These are terrible reasons to vote for a candidate. And they are a direct result of the system we’ve chosen for ourselves.

Our current situation reminds me of a scene in the film “Flags of our Fathers” which tells the backstory of the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo and the way it was manufactured and then exploited to raise money for government bonds to support the war effort. As the character in the film obverves,

“We need easy to understand truths and damn few words.”

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  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

    For proof, one need look no further than yesterday’s Alabama exit polls (not out of love for Fox; these were just well-organized).

    75% of the voters classified themselves as “White evangelical or white born-again Christian”. 46% of the voters stated that it mattered “a great deal” that their candidate shared their religious beliefs. And Santorum, who is not an evangelical or a “born-again” Christian, won in both categories.

    Impressionables.

    Voter awareness and voter education are both vastly more important than just encouraging stupid people to vote.

    Randal: although a ban on advertising would never, ever pass (too many lobbyists to deal with), it is enforceable in theory. How would you enforce this? No paid advertising, or no TV commercials, or what exactly?

    • randal

      “And Santorum, who is not an evangelical or a “born-again” Christian, won in both categories.”

      At least he’s white with a big smile and fancy sweaters.

      “How would you enforce this? No paid advertising, or no TV commercials, or what exactly?”

      Like many (most?) people I think Citizens United was a terrible decision. So I’d start there.

      Yes, a very practical place to start would be with banning 30 second television commercials. Or restrict severely the kinds of images that can be shown on television commercials and require that the information be carefully vetted for accuracy before it is allowed to be broadcast.

      Will political advertising of this kind ever be banned? Probably not, and that may be a good thing. But the more aware we are of the manipulative nature of such advertising the better.

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        “At least he’s white with a big smile and fancy sweaters.”

        Exactly. In the words of famous John Calvin King Jr., “I have a dream….that one day my children will be judged not by the content of their character, but by the weave of their sweaters!”

        “Yes, a very practical place to start would be with banning 30 second television commercials. Or restrict severely the kinds of images that can be shown on television commercials and require that the information be carefully vetted for accuracy before it is allowed to be broadcast.”

        Vetting-for-accuracy won’t work, because it’s so very unlikely that anyone would be able to agree on a neutral vetting party. But the 30 second TV commercials definitely make a huge difference.

        “….the more aware we are of the manipulative nature of such advertising the better.”

        Unfortunately, the average voter isn’t aware of the manipulative nature of most advertising. Uneducated or miseducated voters shouldn’t vote.

        I did have an idea for encouraging voter education….again, it wouldn’t ever be approved, but I think it’s both fair and usable. Instead of the current ballot system, elections should have the candidates listed in random order on one side of a touchscreen and the offices listed on the other side of the touchscreen. The candidates would have a name and a political affiliation, nothing more. The voter would need to drag and drop the candidates to the office of their choice. Once every office was filled, the computer would print out a paper copy of the completed ballot.

        It wouldn’t do much good for presidential races, but it would do tremendous good for state and local races. Matching isn’t confusing or difficult — a two-year-old can do it — but it requires the voter to actually know which candidate is running for which office. If you don’t know what your candidate is running for, you shouldn’t be voting for them.

        • Jerry Rivard

          Nice idea, but ‘user-friendliness’ would have to allow for an accidental mismatch, which allows experimental mismatches, which defeats the whole purpose. Unless you restrict the number of allowable accidental mismatches, in which case you’ll have a major political battle just to determine where the line is drawn.

          But as you noted, it’s a moot point.

          • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

            Well, it could go either way. On the one hand, all ballots with mismatches could be thrown out, making the playing field equal. Of course, that would result in an unfair advantage for candidates who provided their voters with a list of candidates along with their positions.

            The other option is simply to allow all ballots regardless of how mismatched they might be. It doesn’t matter if the guy running for major gets a few dozen votes for the state senate position. There will be some accidental “correct” votes, but these will necessarily be random and thus inconsequential.

            Of course, this system could only work for plurality elections; any elections which depended on proportion (like presidential primaries) could be intentionally skewed by this system. But it wouldn’t be used for presidential elections anyway.

        • randal

          “Vetting-for-accuracy won’t work, because it’s so very unlikely that anyone would be able to agree on a neutral vetting party.”

          I am less skeptical about the potential of an objective fact-checking office than you, but I recognize it would be difficult.

          “Unfortunately, the average voter isn’t aware of the manipulative nature of most advertising. Uneducated or miseducated voters shouldn’t vote.”

          While I think the idea of the Philosopher Kings is abhorrent, so is the idea of giving a person a vote simply because they’ve reached the age of 18 and haven’t been convicted of a crime. After all, immigrants have to pass a modest test before they are recognized as citizens. Why shouldn’t voters have to pass a modest test before they vote?

          Your idea is fascinating, but as you say it would work better for state and local races.

          • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

            I think it would probably be easier to get people to agree on not having any ads at all than it would be to get them to agree on one neutral fact-checking agency.

            “While I think the idea of the Philosopher Kings is abhorrent, so is the idea of giving a person a vote simply because they’ve reached the age of 18 and haven’t been convicted of a crime. After all, immigrants have to pass a modest test before they are recognized as citizens. Why shouldn’t voters have to pass a modest test before they vote?”

            That was my initial objective, actually — to come up with a test that everyone could agree on. The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down “voter eligibility” testing because it has been consistently used to deny minorities their political voice. A “fair” test would have to be directly relevant to the election at hand, contain only factual information, and be free from any potential bias or prejudice. If the African-American dishwasher at the restaurant where I used to work doesn’t know much about politics or US history but believes that it’s important to elect a president who will end undeclared wars, he should still be able to vote for the fellow he thinks will end undeclared wars.

            Set the bar too low (“name the incumbent president”), and you’re still including stupid people. Set the bar too high (“recite the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence”) and the only voters will be me and a bunch of home schoolers.

            In any case, I think having a printout of the ballot would be a good idea for every polling process. It wouldn’t be hard to have a stand-alone touchscreen unit that would spit out a receipt with the candidates and positions printed in OCR-compliant text. This receipt could be fed into an uplinked computer and recorded immediately; the physical receipt could be saved for recounts. No hanging chads.