Lies, Damn Lies, and Campaign Ads

Unscrupulous super PACs would have you eat cookies for breakfast.

On Tuesday, the political media consultant who nearly a quarter century ago introduced us to Willie Horton—the subject of one of the most patently racist presidential campaign ads of the post-Civil Rights era—made news when the brainchild of his first official effort for the Romney general election campaign hit the air.

To judge from his current production, Larry McCarthy has toned down the rhetoric over the years; the 60-second ad —titled “Basketball”—is simply shot, and features a mother lamenting her grown children’s inability to find jobs and stop spending their days shooting hoops in her driveway.

The ad, which is part of a larger $25 million effort to influence the presidential election, was bankrolled by the pro-Romney super PAC Crossroads GPS (headed by Karl Rove), but it never once mentions the presumptive GOP nominee. And while the pensive mother makes it clear that President Obama is to blame for her family’s predicament, the gloom and doom characteristic of much of McCarthy’s earlier work is noticeably absent; the most unsettling thing we are presented with is a poorly executed rapid-aging gimmick. (All that money and they couldn’t afford good CGI?)

News of McCarthy’s ad burned through the media landscape this week, a day before it was scheduled to begin running in 10 swing states. The votes are now in, and by most accounts the first major multi-state ad campaign of the 2012 general election went off with a whimper, not a bang. But don’t count on things staying that way.

McCarthy’s ad went live just a week after a concerned fund-raiser leaked plans for a proposed frontal assault against President Obama that, had it received approval, would have reintroduced the long played-out controversy over the President’s provocative former minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

That proposal was prepared by political strategist Fred Davis and quietly pitched to Joe Ricketts, head of the Ending Spending Action Fund, another conservative super PAC, before the New York Times spilled the beans and the plan was summarily quashed. We’ll never know for sure whether Ricketts would have gone for it. He says he wouldn’t; but with a documented 555 registered super PACs sitting on more than $200 million in cash as of May 23rd (the bulk of it earmarked for negative campaign ads), there’s a pretty good chance someone would.

The flood of unlimited private money into the electoral cycle is gearing up to be a game changer of unprecedented proportion. Since the Citizens United decision made it possible for corporations, unions and private citizens of means to spend whatever they can afford to influence elections, the national echo chamber has turned cacophonous with baseless conjecture, half-truths and exaggerated claims from both sides of the political spectrum. As if there wasn’t enough of that already.

Newly established groups with grandiose names like Make Us Great Again, Winning Our Future and Endorse Liberty began running limited ad campaigns last summer, months earlier than candidates and political parties typically begin their media barrage, and to date have logged total expenditures of more than $110 million. Roughly 90 percent of spending so far has been by conservative groups. And we haven’t even hit summer yet.

In other words, strap yourself in. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

For their part, political strategists love the model. With the rise of the super PAC, the reins have come off and the payoff is better than ever. In an interview published in the Tuesday edition of the Times, Bob Schuman, former chief of the super PAC Americans for Rick Perry, spoke candidly of the benefits to membership.

“You don’t have kitchen cabinets made up of well-intentioned friends and neighbors who don’t know what they’re doing but eat up a lot of your time,” he said, adding: “Super PACs don’t have spouses.”

This lack of accountability is just one problem with the explosion of privately funded campaign advertising. The other goes to the heart of the craft of advertising and its unique and troublesome place in electoral politics.

Political and commercial ads differ in terms of their objectives: one is economic, the other primarily ideological. For a product advertiser, being number two in the market may be reason for rejoicing. For the politician, being number two means a loss. For this reason, political ads are often no-holds-barred affairs.

In her February profile of McCarthy, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer tells us that we should expect “killer ads” and “an awful lot of negativity” from now until November.

It’s entertaining in some ways, and some of the ads are actually informative too, but they have the end effect of so degrading the debate and making both candidates look so awful that it increases cynicism among voters and decreases idealism [emphasis mine].

Negative ads also tend to be goal-oriented and extremely shortsighted. President Obama could (and most likely will) create an entire campaign based solely on what Romney’s former GOP rivals (now his supporters) were saying about him just a few months ago.

But negativity aside, isn’t there something vaguely sinister about moneyed interests spending millions of dollars to alter the perception of people like you and me when it’s common knowledge they’re often less than truthful? Lies are not only a part of the political ad game; they are its bread and butter.

That’s because while product advertisers are prohibited from making false claims, campaign strategists are not. So, while it’s illegal for a drug company to tell consumers that their pill will make them taller/stronger/thinner, airing an ad with the blatant mistruth that (then candidate) Barack Obama wants to teach sex education to children who aren’t old enough to read is simply business as usual.  Since “political speech” is protected under the First Amendment, laws restricting false advertising in campaign commercials would be considered unconstitutional. What’s more, under federal communications guidelines, a broadcaster can either choose not to run any political ads, or run them all—even those he knows to be lies. As a result, pretty much anything goes. Sure, there are services like or that gauge the accuracy of campaign ads, but how many voters really take the time to check them?

Advertising is a powerful tool. Advertising without scruples or rules is a dangerous one—particularly for people who are not regularly accessing unbiased sources of information (an increasingly difficult feat to pull off). Advertising plays on emotion at the expense of reason. Crafty advertising has enticed parents to give their kids cookies for breakfast and convinces otherwise discerning adults to take medicines that proudly proclaim they can cause gas with oily discharge and sudden death (I’m not sure which is worse). I for one find it more than mildly disconcerting that the same forces are helping millions of Americans make up their mind about who our next president should be.

The framers intended government to lead by informed consent, but today it seems misinformed consent is just as good. Let’s all be extra careful going through this campaign season to make sure we come out the other end in the former, not the latter camp.