Truthiness In Advertising
By Tom Nussbaum
“Conrad Pitzer kicked a puppy! And he wants to represent you in Congress?” a campaign ad claims. A sad-eyed cocker spaniel stares from the television screen, begging the viewer to ask, “How horrible is that man?” But I don’t because I realize this is an “attack ad” and I know the truth.
On the campaign trail, Pitzer regularly tells the tale of kicking his stuffed doggie, Bow-Wow, in a “terrible twos” temper tantrum. As a result, his parents never let him have a stuffed animal again. “That experience taught me to remain calm and avoid making rash decisions,” he finishes the story. “That is why I would make a fair congressman.”
That ad and that scenario are not real. But it could be real because it is representative of the low-level political campaign ads have reached.
There are few Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations regarding content of campaign ads. There may have been negative attack ads when I was young, but they were rare. An understood code of “truth in advertising” existed. Since the 1980s, however, attack ads, disregarding honesty and the humanity of the opponent, have become the norm.
“Will a cheater like Landis Derringer be an honest mayor?” poses another ad. The woman facing the camera continues. “I had an English Literature class with Derringer in college. And I remember him telling me he hadn’t read all of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and had to rely on CliffsNotes to discuss the novel in class.” An investigation, however, would show that the class syllabus did not include the Hardy novel and the woman accusing Derringer of cheating used CliffsNotes herself for George Orwell’s 1984.”
The use of attack ads increased in 2010 with the advent, acceptance, and legalization of independent expenditure committees, Super PACs, and groups like Citizens United. Because these groups are not officially part of candidates’ campaign committees or national parties, they answer to no one.
“I have never lied to you. I never will,” states incumbent Blythe Leigh Tannenbaum. “But my opponent continues to deny that one of his campaign workers, a Pablo Gonzales, immigrated illegally from Central America.” Tannenbaum shakes her head. Records show, however, Gonzales, a third-generation U.S. citizen, moved from Kansas—that’s central USA, not Central America—to work on the campaign while his wife completed her PhD at a nearby university.
Rather than focusing on a campaign’s own candidate’s strengths, views, plans, and values, attack ads, whether generated by the candidate’s committee or a supportive independent group, target the opposition, highlighting out-of-context quotes, exaggerations, misinformation, and lies about the opponent. Rarely do these ads include party affiliation, counting on a confused, gullible public’s emotional response rather than critically evaluating the ad’s claims or source. The purpose, of course, is to discredit the opposition, dehumanize him or her, and instill fear and distrust into the electorate. Gone are the days when, as “Dragnet’s” Sgt. Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
By smearing opposing candidates in political ads, campaigns have let the electorate off the hook. Voters shouldn’t need to rely on ads for their information. They could get it by simply following the news, relying on a variety of fair, respected sources, analyzing what they have learned, and remembering. That is the voter’s responsibility. Were the electorate to do this, they would leave campaign admen the simple job of reminding them of their clients’ strengths, values, and ideas. Instead, the public has allowed these conmen to take campaign advertising on a downward spiral.
We have reached the point that anything goes in campaign advertisements, that any statement or claim made about the political foe is acceptable, even if it is caked with layered absurdity, like my sense of humor.
“My opponent hates policemen and wants them to starve to death,” asserts Bucky Dunbar while scenes from a decades-old, out-of-control Chilean riot flash on the screen. His challenger, Wendell Heffelfinger, whose parents are a policeman and prosecuting attorney, merely wants to reduce police funding by 20 percent, targeting unnecessary high-powered military equipment.
On the other hand, Heffelfinger’s ads claim “Dunbar wants the tongues of all protesters cut out and their fingers lopped off,” when all the latter said was, “Looters and destroyers of public property should be arrested.”
Dunbar and Heffelfinger might have a point there. Perhaps, political admen, who might be considered looters and destroyers of our public airways, should be arrested. And have their tongues cut out and fingers lopped off.