Why (most) political advertising should be illegal
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.”