Did you know that Mitt Romney is responsible for the death of a steel worker’s wife? Or that President Obama gutted the work requirement for welfare? Do you remember Mr. Obama’s famous “Apology Tour” that kicked off his first term? How about that then-Governor Romney outsourced thousands of Massachusetts jobs to India?
It’s amazing what you can learn from ads in this year’s presidential campaign: namely, some of our political leaders and their supporters are lying. Not stretching the truth or spinning the facts (which we expect) but outright lying. While advertising shouldn’t be your main source of education, it also shouldn’t be a source of disinformation.
FactCheck.org has never been so busy. You can spend hours on their website, watching them pull threads that unravel almost every statement made in almost every political ad of this long campaign season. If you Google “lies in 2012 presidential campaign ads,” you get 224,000,000 hits.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this piece misidentified the name of the Annenberg Public Policy website FactCheck.org.]
As an American, I’m disgusted. As a guy who makes ads for a living, I’m shocked. (And it’s hard to shock an ad guy). Imagine Coke and Pepsi running ad campaigns that attack the other brand. And I don’t mean the kinds of entertaining ads that show Pepsi truck drivers surreptitiously trying to order a Coke at a restaurant. I mean attack ads like our presidential candidates and their Super PAC supporters are running. Twisting facts. Accusing the other side of horrible labor practices. Personal attacks on the other brand’s CEO.
Both soft-drink brands would pay a price for that kind of advertising. Consumers would punish them by taking their dollars elsewhere. Our free market would work. The No. 3 soda-maker would make headway. Ice tea sales would go up. Boutique brands like Jones Soda and Izze would reap the benefits.
Regardless of what you think about consumer advertising, you have to admit, it’s at a higher level than 90 percent of all political ads. It’s more entertaining, more artful, and yes, more honest. Contrary to what political candidates seem to think, you can move people without bashing the other side and without misusing facts. Consumer brands do it everyday. In fact, facts usually get in the way of persuasion. Most people make most of their decisions with their hearts, not their minds.
So why does political advertising remain so negative and so dishonest? You might say because it works, but I’d like to offer another explanation: There is simply no meaningful penalty for misusing the facts in political campaigns. No free market forces to punish the candidates’ bad behavior. As long as they both do it – and we only have two choices – you can’t take your vote elsewhere. You can sue. But those lawsuits get settled after election day.
Ironically, in a (mostly) free-market democracy, where there are hundreds of brands of cookies on the grocery store shelf, there are only two candidates on the ballot. That’s exactly one more choice than the Syrians have.
Let’s say there were five presidential candidates and two of them engaged in a war of disinformation and personal attacks. Voters would become disgusted and take a closer look at the other three candidates. But with only two candidates, the reward for disregarding the truth is simply too high. If you can destroy your opponent, you win. You don’t have to stand for anything; you just have to be the last one standing.
It’s easier to “Swift Boat” your opponent, as George W. Bush supporters did to John Kerry in 2004, than it is to win by spelling out your platform in great detail. In fact, there’s a risk to that, and that’s why you’re not seeing either candidate in this election get terribly specific – though Obama looks to have been more specific than the Romney-Ryan camp – about how they would pay for the things they want to do.
We need more parties, more choices, more solutions. Even one weak third party-challenger in the mainstream would help keep these two campaigns and their PACs honest. I never thought I’d miss Ross Perot, but I do. If competition works for capitalism, it should work for democracy, too.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.