Let Political Ads Go the Way of Cigarette Commercials

lucky strikesWhen asked to report on the onslaught of political ads on television words like “flood,” “deluge,” and “torrent,” will suddenly pepper copy. A report from the Borrell Associates estimates $9.8 billion will be spent on political advertising this season. Nearly 60 percent of that will be on television. Phrases like “secret money” and “shadow funders” also pop up. Conservatives, traditionally, call for transparency when it comes to money in politics. Liberals will call for limits. Right now we have neither. And nowhere is that more apparent than on your teevee.

Ask anyone in even a slightly purple state or in an even slightly contested district: Political ads are a plague come election time. And what exactly are we getting for our (estimated) $42 per potential voter? Not much.

Ads are not transparent, not fact checked and in many cases not accountable. Voters get to feel like Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange” during his aversion therapy (eye drops, anyone?) without knowing who’s footing the bill.

A way to combat this Stanley Kubrick-esque torment is just ban all political advertisements on television.

“That’s an assault on free speech.”

First off, television is not an unregulated utopia of free speech – that’s the Internet (for now, anyway). Television, like it or not, doesn’t allow everything to be broadcast. There are standards on television. Our mores may have changed over time but generally we’re still okay with decency standards for television. Speaking is speech. Broadcast is regulated.

And it’s worth noting, 99 percent of Americans have televisions in their homes. It’s still the broadest, most viewed medium we have. Which is why candidates and advocates for candidates invest billions into blanketing it.

We don’t allow tobacco companies, for example, to advertise on television. Why? Because their products are poisonous and harmful to our citizenry. The same could be said for Swift Boating, Demon Sheeping and whatever Herman Cain is doing.

These ads are supposed to sway public opinion. But these aren’t actually opinions being targeted – they’re emotions. Most Americans have less of an opinion when it comes to politics and more of a visceral reaction to issues. Which explains why your “political debate” over Thanksgiving dinner ended up with you being pummeled with green bean casserole.

And there’s no better example of where to start hysteria than in 30-second fear and loathing campaign spots. Does this elevate political discourse? Civic engagement? Sound policy? Hardly. These ads are doing what tobacco does: producing a carcinogenic cloud.

tina dupuy

“But you’re trying to limit a candidate’s ability to get their message out!” Look, if you can’t get your message out after 23 Republican primary debates – you don’t have a message. Candidates should be out on the stump, on television, at town halls and at debates. Absolutely. It’s the anonymous sugar daddies bank rolling ads the candidates can easily divorce themselves from that I suggest discontinuing. It’s like having all the benefits of a loyal Rottweiler and none of the legal liability once it mauls your adversary.

So just ban these spots. Let the hallowed ground of 20 minutes per hour of programming be for more wholesome things like erectile dysfunction treatments or reverse home mortgages. End candidate television advertising.

tina dupuy“If this happens what’s to stop a ban on ALL political shows?” Ridiculous. We haven’t had cigarette commercials for half a century and we still have smoking on TV. Banning a type of advertising that erodes our elections into secret televised slush funds won’t stop political programming.

What it will do is something about this flood – this deluge – this torrent of commercials – the most in the history of interruptions – that’s drowning our discourse.

Tina Dupuy
Taking Eternal Vigilance Too Far 


  1. says

    I disagree. Without all of Meg Whitmans ads in California with her smug face and overbearing voice to make the whole state sick of her evil Republican hide, she may have gotten elected……..

  2. markhalfmoon says

    I’m in total agreement with you Tina. Political ads target the vulnerable amygdalae of the fear stricken electorate and appeal to the myths and prejudices of the lowest common denominator. It is not speech at all. It reduces complex issues to simplistic jingoistic slogans designed, not to inform but to confuse. Whichever candidate can trigger the highest emotional reaction amid this whirlwind of confusion, usually fear of their opponent, usually triumphs. The talent and skill required to win an election is not necessarily useful for the actual practice of good governing.

    It is not a restriction of free speech to allow candidates to have adequate time to debate each other and address the public directly without music, sound effects, dramatic narrators, exaggerated facts, and outright unchecked lies. What would be wrong with publicly funded appeals from the candidates themselves, speaking in plain terms about the issues? They could use charts, graphics and testimonials if they want, but without the extremely manipulative production techniques used today to bedazzle us with their bullshit.

  3. Jrlesq22 says

    I assume this is tongue in cheek. We do have a first amendment though I am seeing signs that progressives, who used to be big supporters of free speech don’t seem to like it when it comes from conservative politicians or the tea party. Any proposal to limit political commercials would be unconstitutional on it’s face.

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