Why we should get rid of political advertising -- now

A veteran adman says that it's time for ads to go back to doing what they do best: Selling kitty litter.


Bob Welke
September 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Now that I've been hanging around the human race for 50-plus years, I've come to some conclusions, beliefs if you will, which guide me as I head for the office or put out the cat. For instance, I believe that aliens have not yet landed, guns really do kill people and political advertising ought to be eradicated from our existence.

Obviously, there are many intelligent and highly regarded people who take the opposite view -- on all those issues. But that's why life is the rich fabric that it is. What's more, the good part about living here in the United States is that you don't get shot for disagreeing (most of the time).

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The reason I feel the way I do about political advertising is that I've been making my living in advertising for about 30 years, and I know the damage it can do. There's an old, very old, adage that says, "nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising." You get convinced to stop for a Bonzoburger, you don't like it, so hey, you don't eat there again. Ah, capitalism! But if you elect a candidate that doesn't work, you're stuck with him, pal. And before you get to not vote for him again, he gets to vote on dissolving your Social Security, sending troops to Kosovo and impeaching the president (another guy whose ads you liked).

All this assumes that the only reason you vote for someone is their advertising. And there are those people who would say that they're not influenced by the ads. These, I suspect, are the same people who pay an extra $8,000 for an SUV because it has a first-aid kit. They say that while they may see the ads, they vote because of the issues and the platforms put forth by the candidates. This may well be true for a lot of folks. Or to put it another way, Oh, God, I hope so.

But the fact of the matter is that you get bombarded by a lot of advertising for one simple, proven-in-the-political-arena reason: It works. As Steven Kates wrote in the December 1998 Journal of Business Ethics (hey, just because I'm in advertising ...), "Political advertising is believed to work under certain conditions for certain types of voters and for certain types of purposes such as image development, agenda setting, or attacking opponents."

Even if you're not a "certain type of voter," ask yourself: Isn't this just a peachy way to elect people? It's image we want, so let's get ourselves a handsome guy -- he's much more qualified than Abe would ever be. And of course, we want the agenda set on TV, not by the needs of the voters, so let's make sure the election is about Willie Horton, not about where the money is coming from for our schools.

But let's get to the real sirloin of this discussion, what we all know is poking us in the eye and giving us a national migraine: attack ads.

There is nothing wrong with attacking what an incumbent has or has not done. That's what debates are for. But in a debate, there is something called a rebuttal. It's the time when the attacked gets to respond to what's been said. At the same time and place, in front of the same audience. In other words, the attacker has to stand for what he's said. The same is true in a trial. An accusation is made, a defense is given.

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But in a 30-second ad, anything can be alleged. By the time the respondent responds, days or even weeks have gone by. And of course, the natural reaction is to mount counter-attacks that are also immune to scrutiny. The net result for the viewer is an endless assault of shrill, demeaning finger-pointing. Congress on "Jerry Springer."

Don't kid yourself. Even as we take great delight in getting rid of suits in the office, there is a feeling that the institutions that make up the steel girders of our society are cracking. We can live with the fact that our politicians are, after all, just human beings. But can we survive if we force them to mud-wrestle to keep their jobs?

In commenting about a barrage of Democratic commercials, Kenneth T. Walsh wrote this in U.S. News: "The commercials have succeeded in painting the Republicans as extremists. But the negative barrage also has intensified cynicism about all politics, leaving many voters not so much angry toward Washington as feeling it is irrelevant."

He went on to say: "Studies indicate that attack advertising breeds such disgust among moderate voters that many do not vote at all. If the current scorched-earth campaign continues, the November election could be dominated by die-hards and ideologues while centrists stay home."

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This is the real danger. Not that we might elect a bonehead or two; heck, good government needs boneheads. Say what you might about Joe McCarthy, you're probably not going to see blacklists in Hollywood again. (At least not about being communist. About being involved in making the "Blair Witch Project," perhaps, but not about being a communist.) No, the real danger is that by maintaining a methodology that rewards video veneer and violence of voice, we encourage a huge amount of self-interest money to finance a hissy fit. The result is disdain for everyone in the arena. Raise your hand for election and sure, you might start out as a hero: Mr. Hobbs goes to Washington. But I guarantee you that two weeks into the contest, you've become a self-sniffing, pocket-stuffing progress-stopper bent on screwing the voter out of rights, wallet, safety and any chance of keeping a job. And just wait till you're the incumbent, you slug.

No wonder the next generation of voters is changing the channel. In "A Politics For Generation X," in the August 1999 Atlantic Monthly, Ted Halstead cites Gary Ruskin, "an Xer who directs the Congressional Accountability Project, a public-policy group in Washington, D.C.," who says "Republicans and Democrats have become one and the same -- they are both corrupt at the core and behave like children who are more interested in fighting with each other than in getting anything accomplished."

Halstead doesn't refer specifically to political advertising, but he does cite some dire statistics that to me indicate some of the damage we're doing to ourselves: "Voting rates are arrestingly low among post-Boomers. In the 1994 midterm elections, for instance, fewer than one in five eligible Xers showed up at the polls. As recently as 1972 half those aged eighteen to twenty-four voted; in 1996, a presidential-election year, only 32 percent did. Such anemic participation can be seen in all forms of traditional political activity; Xers are considerably less likely than previous generations of young Americans to call or write elected officials, attend candidates' rallies, or work on political campaigns."

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As an ad guy, the first thing I'd say to the Founding Fathers if they called me in for a brand revitalization is that the current brand managers have screwed it up royally. Instead of sending out messages about values, performance and quality, they've blown the brand's goodwill bank account on sense-off coupons to get themselves elected. It's time we made them behave.

Again from the Atlantic Monthly (and again from the mouths of babes): "America's greatest need these days is to clear out the underbrush of name-calling and ideology so that simple things can work again."

"But what are we to do?" I hear you moan as your head hits the screen. "The First Amendment sez we must let them do this to us."

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Two hundred-plus years ago some great men gathered together, kicked the British out and created a new nation. We are eternally grateful for both these things, although I sometimes feel we ought to go to London, tell them we've maxed out the credit cards and give the whole thing back. These men wrote a document to tell us how to govern ourselves. Why? Because they were sick of having some aging syphilitic decide the rules on the basis of whether or not his mascara ran. This document survives and guides us today.

But hopefully we have learned that documents need to grow just like people. Progress changes how we act and how we think. Inventions beget behaviors. Discoveries provide opportunities. And most important right now, technology changes the rules. No law should ever be passed abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, or to petition the government for redress of grievances.

But like speed limits and bans on assault weapons and discouraging people from yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, we just have to find a better way to allow our candidates to have their say and speak it too. There wasn't any VH1 when those words were written. There weren't any Web sites, transit ads or caller I.D. As a society that is leading the charge into the next century, we simply have to come to grips with better ways to provide information while protecting what we got. We're dealing with it for commerce. We're dealing with it for pornography. Sometimes effectively, sometimes not, but we're trying. Why can't we turn some of this effort toward maintaining the dignity and effectiveness of government, which those guys who wrote the Constitution were literally ready to die for?

And there are ways. We've already got televised debates. What about cable access forums in which candidates can respond to viewer inquiries and their opponents can react? What about Internet sites at which issues can be articulated and examined? We've got hundreds of channels now. How about devoting one to something other than fishing? There have to be a dozen or more better ways to do this than to pour millions into paid political video manipulations that do nothing more than cause people to say the hell with it.

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Helayne Spivak -- who did the creative thing at places like Hal Riney, Young & Rubicam and Ammirati Puris Lintas and last held the nosebleed title of World Wide Creative Director, Chief Creative Director, North America, for J. Walter Thompson -- was on former president George Bush's ad team during his campaign against Gov. Michael Dukakis. Archive magazine asked her the difference between political campaigns and propaganda. Here is part of what she said:

I don't think anymore that there is any difference. [In the Bush campaign, the] candidate was a product. Well, I guess we get what we deserve, because if you can affect a presidential campaign on a 30-second commercial, if people will not listen to debates, if they're not interested in hearing what the candidates have to say, yet one negative political ad is able to move people, I guess it's our own fault. It's all propaganda.

Don't blame Spivak. She's telling you what is.

I just think we have to give some thought to what is going to be. Stopping paid political advertisements won't make for a new dawn in America, certainly not by itself. But as a guy who makes ads, I'd like to see ads go back to what they were made for: selling soap.

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Bob Welke

Bob Welke is chairman and chief creative officer at Euro RSCG Tatham in Chicago.

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