The Costs of Political Advertising
Feb 8, 2011

The Costs of Political Advertising

Obama aims to build an arsenal for the 2012 election cycle to the unbelievable tune of a billion dollars, which will no doubt be made partially possible by the Citizens United case which legalized unlimited corporate campaign donations. Faced with the skyrocketing costs of campaigns, we must ask what we are getting in exchange.

Political campaigns have essentially turned into advertising campaigns, and it is precisely for this fact that they cost so much money. That Obama won the 2008 advertising industries top award (beating out Apple) exemplifies the veracity of this statement.

As an industry, advertising serves a single purpose: to influence the choices of the public. However, this goal is achieved in broadly two different means: influencing choices by rational means and influencing choices through irrational means. The former consists of things like informing people about the existence and relevant features and statistics of a product, arguing why they are superior and the like. The latter involves a host of tactics like sexual appeals to irrationally persuade people. Note that one can still purchase the best product for themselves due to advertising, but they may be influenced by irrational motivations; further, this dichotomy is not absolute and should be seen more as a grayscale. The issue that becomes immediately obvious as soon as one turns on the TV is that the irrational persuasion utterly dominates the advertising industry. When we accept this as core normative strategy of advertising, it becomes quite suggestive to see the industry award Obama's campaign. The conclusion will be clear: political campaigns focus largely on attempts to irrationally persuade people.

There are many specific methodologies shared by general and political advertising in the irrational persuasion category  but consider the example of positive associations. In traditional advertising, one couples a product with something positive: luxurious life styles, sex, celebrity and the like. In politics, the typical "positive associations" are repeating basic values that have near universal appeal. Things like praising the country and endorsing nationalism, praising the troops, core values like freedom, the constitution, and of course considerable praise for the people (ie the intended audience informing us how wonderful we are). The positive association makes us more willing to buy the product or vote for the politician even before we have heard anything about why the product or politician actually is different let alone better.

Relatively little time is spent in either normal advertising or political campaign. Advertising for, say, Coca Cola with the exception of "new" products has essentially zero emphasis on informing the public about anything to do with their product. Our awareness of the product in our mind and the positive associations created is where the advertising value comes from. In politics, one merely has to listen to any speech to see how much time is spent on actually discussing core policy proposals and their consequences compared to generic anecdotes, platitudes and sentiments which we overwhelmingly agree with.

The use of excessive repetition of catch phrases is also the same. Consider the parallel between Nike's "Just do it" and Obama's "Yes we can", both of which involve a sense of empowering the audience in a short phrase which is repeated ad nauseum to the point we just accept the premise and framing involved: that empowerment comes through purchasing products or voting a certain way. The "Change we can believe in" phrase is also interesting in that it immediately begs the question: what change? However, details of any specific change are a distinctly secondary element in our public consciousness and it is this phrase and the general impression of change that dominates. As it turned out, the striking continuity of the Obama administration with the Bush administration demonstrates how empty the change premise was.

Having outlined briefly the parallel - and it runs far deeper than these few examples - we turn to the question of the consequences of having such an advertising based political discourse. We follow the guiding principle established above of irrational choices being a normative strategy of advertising that dominates political advertising.

The first consequence coincides well with observation: appallingly bad voter knowledge about fairly basic facts such as whether Obama is a Muslim, whether Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11 or whether the healthcare bill increases or decreases the federal deficit. Part of this is of course is just voter apathy or can be blamed more on media like Fox News than politicians (despite the cyclical feedback). However, a large part is that the entire institution of political advertising doesn't seek to inform voters of the specifics of policies, but to encourage popular support in general through the tactics of positive association, repetitive sloganeering and the like. It is not surprising that the public is so ill-informed when this is at best a secondary strategy of political advertising.

Secondly, it is my contention that the staggering costs in political campaigns could be significantly lowered if there was a focus more on describing policy and the specifics of what a politician is going to do. It takes a lot of advertising and money to establish a brand name like "Obama" or "Nike" and all the repetitive positive association that goes with it. Comparatively, explaining the facts and policy positions is I think far cheaper. This doesn't require a massive political advertising campaign, one can barely say anything of substance on a 30 second commercial anyways, it just requires consistent attempts to engage in legitimate discourse about the issues.

When two politicians combat at the brand level of establishing superior personalities, there is a distinct zero sum nature to it. We don't benefit when the two sides both double, say, the amount of exposure we get to their slogan. Nothing productive is being done here, but the costs soar as both - out of necessity - try to out repeat the other. However, if they were both engaging in a fact and argument based campaign, doubling the attention spent actually is valuable as it results in an engaged debate going on about the actual issues.

One might be tempted to ask given its costly and unproductive nature that results in an ill-informed public why this advertising is used. The reason is simple: it works; it is am effective strategy to garner votes just as advertising is an effective strategy to result in increased sales. It isn't necessary, and indeed one governor in the US got elected and only spent $2500, but it is is the norm.

The best approach for us as voters is to simply attempt to inform ourselves about the policy proposals and the consequences thereof and vote accordingly. If we are conscious of the political advertising campaigns we can prevent ourselves from being taken in by them. This applies after elections too where it seems many on the left can't, say, criticize Obama even when he blatantly opposes their core values. Campaign finance reform, third party participation in debates, and a focus towards the Internet with it's capacity to convey information are all important steps to reducing the pervasive nature of political advertising.

The goal of this post was to really tie together the three facts about campaigns that they are heavily propagandized, enormously expensive and induce poor voter knowledge. There is a direct causal relationship between these facts and it is to the detriment of the people and our democracy that this system causes a subduing of informed civic engagement. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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1 comment:

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