(Standard disclaimer: What you are about to read is my opinion alone, and does not reflect the opinion of the broadcasting company that signs my paychecks, anybody who works there, or any other animal, vegetable, or mineral, either living or dead.)
As a battleground state in the presidential election, and with a high-stakes U.S. Senate race, Wisconsin is seeing an unprecedented volume of political ads this fall. November elections are usually a bonanza for broadcasters, but this one is bigger than ever because of the vast amounts of Super PAC money that now can be spent on behalf of candidates. (In Wisconsin, we first saw this money in last summer’s recall election.)
Anybody can buy a political ad. Although we’re more conscious of this since the Citizens United decision unleashed the new flood of anonymous political money, it’s always been true, as long as the ad is worded in a particular way. A friend of mine tells of a couple who walked into his radio station on the Friday before the 2004 election with a wad of cash to buy their own homemade ad. They weren’t affiliated with the Bush campaign or any Bush-supporting group, they said—they just wanted to make sure their personal message would get out. By law, they couldn’t come right out and say “vote for Bush,” but they could encourage people to vote against John Kerry, or for a particular set of ideals, without mentioning Bush’s name. (My suspicion is that by now, a majority of the advertising you are hearing and seeing is of this type—“fire Obama,” or “Candidate X is wrong for insert the name of your state here.”)
The couple and their ad buy is a fine exemplar of American democracy, average citizens using the free market to express their First Amendment rights and all that—but the ad was horrible, a supposed dialogue between two neighbors that sounded like two amateurs stumbling through a script they’d written themselves. Which is exactly what it was.
And there was not much the station could do about it. A kindly producer might have worked with them to make the ad sound better (and maybe one did), but a station can’t say it won’t run an ad because it sucks. Major candidates and Super PACs hire agencies, so there’s generally a minimum level of competence involved, but some candidates and surrogates, like the couple at my friend’s station, go to some studio, knock out a spot in 10 minutes, and call it good enough.
Stations can’t refuse to air a political ad on the basis of its content, which makes perfect sense. Otherwise you’d have stations refusing to run ads for candidates its owners don’t like. But that opens the door for certain other problems. In 1980, a presidential candidate on a minor-party ticket caused a major stir with an ad containing the phrase “that’s bullshit.” The FCC ruled that if stations were running any political ads for any candidate, they had to run the “bullshit” ad. (This requirement popped back into the news a few years ago when an anti-abortion candidate somewhere wanted to run a TV ad showing graphic footage of aborted fetuses.)
So it’s easy for political ads to suck, and for a lot of reasons. Now that we’re close to Election Day, you may have noticed a lot of ads that attempt to invoke emotional reactions. When the race is on the line, appeals to emotion are very effective, because political ads are, ultimately, the most basic of emotional appeals. Whatever nuggets of objective fact they may contain are frequently swaddled in a blanket of loaded language. Because politics touches the most significant areas of our lives—money, security, family, life and death—decisions made in the voting booth are less rational choices than emotional decisions. However much we may want a measured discourse on the important questions of the day, we live in a therapeutic culture that prizes feelings above everything else, and that means we aren’t going to get it. Lincoln and Douglas aren’t coming back. And even in the days of Lincoln and Douglas, there were emotional appeals made on behalf of candidates, and scurrilous attacks on one candidate by surrogates for another. Only the form is different, not the content.
All that said, however, my radio paycheck helps cover the mortgage and a car payment, so bring on those political ads this week. They’re awesome.