November 8, 2022
When America’s descent into idiocracy is chronicled, there will be a chapter on political advertising.
We keep seeing laments about campaigns growing costlier. Most of that spending goes on ads; saturating the landscape in closely contested elections.
Where does all the money come from? Much is “dark money” from fatcats, which has always been forthcoming. Most donated not out of altruism, but seeking a payback. But more lately grassroots contributions have expanded hugely too, as parties hone their techniques for seeking them, mainly email blasts.
Parties raise and spend these vast sums because they can. And because they don’t know how to do otherwise. It’s an arms race, even while, in great part, they’re shooting blanks. Because the effectiveness of political ads is limited. The number of undecideds — who will actually go on to vote at all — tends to be small. Ads may nevertheless seem justified for motivating your base. But even if you’ve got a killer ad, how many times must you air it? Surely there’s a point of diminishing returns with the same or similar ads broadcast over and over — most voters either tuning them out or actually getting fed up with seeing them. And “buying elections” is a myth. Annals are full of candidates who spent hugely and lost.
Meantime the ads tend not to help make an informed electorate. That’s putting it mildly. In fact they’re disastrous for our civic culture. Candidates don’t want to “bring a knife to a gunfight.” Standards for what you can get away with have collapsed. Politicians (well, mainly Republicans) have learned there is no penalty for lying. Thus proliferation of searingly nasty ads demonizing opponents as monsters, usually with gross distortion if not outright falsehood and appeals to the worst in human nature. This contributes to divisive polarization and turning people off about politics altogether.
One California candidate, interviewed on film, predicted his opponent would try to smear him by saying he proposed to introduce communism. That film clip duly appeared in an attack ad — doctored to make it sound like the guy proposed to introduce communism. (This episode was reported on The Daily Show.)
And here’s a shocker — the worst offenders, by far, for this sort of thing, are Republicans. We keep hearing how much better they are at messaging than Democrats. Well, it helps if your cynicism and bad faith know no bounds.
Too few voters can see it. In this campaign, for example, many are scared by Republican ads about crime. Which is still way below levels of decades past. Republicans posture as champions of “law and order” and the police. Even while excusing and even defending the lawless January 6 attack on police officers (not to mention our civic order). And even while blocking all efforts to regulate even the most murderous military weapons and other sources of rampant gun crime. “Law and order” my ass. Yet polls say voters trust Republicans more on this issue!
And they look set to win a big election victory.