News & Views from 465 California Street

Those Awful Political Ads

Clint Reilly
Jun
3
2008

Today is election day in California.

Even though I actively support many candidates financially and through volunteering, just turning on a TV during election season is difficult for me. Opening my mailbox is painful. I feel smothered by the tidal wave of television commercials and brochures that wash through my house every election cycle.

I was a political consultant for more than two decades before exiting the profession in 1996. I was responsible for helping to create dozens of campaigns and many new techniques for managing them. I certainly produced my share of marginal political ads.

But frankly, I’m shocked by the state of political advertising today. It’s appalling.

Nevertheless, mediocre candidates win and atrocious political ads work for two disturbing reasons: because one side has more money, and because there isn’t enough objective information coming from neutral sources like newspapers to communicate the truth.

The problems go hand-in-hand. Daily newspapers are powerless to provide ample objective information against the onslaught of paid propaganda manufactured by political consultants and financed by special interests. The “one-story wrap-up” coverage of legislative or local races just can’t compete with a dozen mailers and thousands of rating points in television spots.

Voters desperately need newspapers to provide objective coverage of local government and state legislative races. But, as newspapers reduce reporters and reporting, the information available to voters on local and regional issues dwindles. Cutbacks have left many news beats literally uncovered.

Also, as more voters move from newspapers to the Web for news, one statistic is ominous. According to research conducted by the Pew Institute, less than 10 percent of Americans receive their local news on the Internet.

It seems that Web readers are keeping abreast of national and international issues but are woefully ignorant on local issues.

Meanwhile, the two principal forms of political advertising are dragging down the democratic process.

First, direct political mailings have become so predictable in design and content that the form itself – even before a brochure is read – evokes a negative reaction from voters. My theory is that the sight of a brochure in the mailbox now triggers highly negative feelings about politics from voters, even though they may read and even decide based on information in the brochure.

As time passes and more money buys more brochures for each election, voters are building an aversion to the form itself. The bad graphics, screaming colors, attack content and cookie-cutter format have given the very medium a stench that permeates every piece. It makes direct mail increasingly counterproductive. Voters say to themselves, “I may not read it at all, or I may read it, but I still resent what I’m reading.”

Second, political television commercials are now more affordable because of the cheap cost of cable television and the omnipresence of special interest contributions.

Therefore, more political spots than ever are being mass-produced for hundreds of candidates with different names and faces. Most of these spots are poorly directed and badly written but still manage to look and sound like the same commercial. Blink, go to the bathroom or get a beer from the fridge and the sound is either extolling or smearing.

I believe that a growing number of voters have developed automatic filters that actually turn the spots off mentally as soon as they hear the sound.

These brochures and commercials have undoubtedly helped to elect many candidates over the past 30 years, but I believe their greatest accomplishment may be to elect Barack Obama.

By creating a monumental backlash against the bankruptcy of our political discourse, the entire medium of political advertising has become the best advertisement for Obama’s indictment of our dysfunctional democracy.

Comments (4)

  • Political consultants/campaign managers have a fiduciary duty to represent their client to the best of their ability to get the candidate elected. After all, if the candidate isn’t elected, they’ll never be in a position to carry out their ideas and programs. You can’t blame the political consultant and/or smear campaigns because that’s part of the process. The political consultant has a job to do. To act in the best interests of their client first and foremost. We wouldn’t want this any other way with our Doctors and Attorneys would we? There is most always an opposing side. That side has to figure out what it needs to do in order to win.

    But when a monopolistic or oligopolistic media fails to compete (or worse, conspires to collude), then democracy has a very problematic threat. We all know the media wields it’s power through the very artery of Democracy. That is the free and competing flow of ideas and passionate opinions/debate. There should always be two (or more) sides to a story. And then there’s the truth, or at the very least the best choice. Often times, one side of the story bombards and controls the sphere of influence, because it has more money, more distributive and logistical capabilities, more space, “more media” by which to distribute those ideas to the mass marketplace

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | June 3rd, 2008 at 10:17 am

  • i’m so sick of political mailings that i don’t know where they’re coming from. its one thing to get something from a candidate that says, ‘hey, i’m your guy/woman’ but its something else to get something from ‘democrats united for freedom’ or something with a big eagle on it that tells me everyone to vote for for everything.

    my auto filter is at 100%!!

    Posted by: Jose Mejia | June 4th, 2008 at 7:53 am

  • The next question is this: When will someone step up and change the campaign season debate from the shlock that we’ve become accustomed to? I think you’re right because Obama has begun to do that. He doesn’t insult people’s intelligence when he engages them. I appreciate that.

    Posted by: KT Yeries | June 4th, 2008 at 10:16 am

  • Clint,

    You are totally correct. I agree with you.
    But what do we do? I just throw away the mailers.
    I read books, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Economist to try to get the truth. It’s very difficult as to who to believe. I feel that as a nation, we need to change. Our children are not getting the education at school nor at home. Are we as a nation going soft?? -BB

    Posted by: barbara brooks | June 4th, 2008 at 4:43 pm

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