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November 11, 2012

MORTON MARCUS: Political advertisements do little to advance choice

After all the weeks of political campaigning, it is a joy to see an ad for an automobile, a beer, a hamburger, a dish washing detergent, even a medicine that has disastrous side effects.

The purpose of advertising, I like to believe, is to impart information. It generally tells me who is offering what, where, when and for how much. Not all those pieces of information are always present. Not all the information presented is always true. Misleading information or claims are common in advertising.

“The cleanest, brightest wash you’ll ever see!”

“The hair treatment that will make him/her notice, at last.”

“The movie that everyone is talking about.”

We are accustomed to exaggeration in advertising. We expect ads to be manipulative in nature, trying to get our attention and our favorable response to the message.

The recent excesses of political advertising in Indiana and elsewhere seemed to do little in swaying public opinion. (Further research may prove this conclusion to be wrong, but for the moment let it stand.) Voters expressed exasperation with the number and content of those ads.

Yes, candidates need to inform the voters about who they are, what they have done, and what they believe are the best solutions for the nation’s (state’s) problems.

But do they have to pound us with endless, vicious allegations about the actions and words of their opponents? What candidate looks better by making his/her opponent look worse?

It may well be that such scorching doses of venom as we saw in the U.S. Senate campaign this year in Indiana are just good entertainment.

Perhaps, for many of our fellow citizens, the purpose of campaigns is entertainment, some form of melodrama in which the hero makes the villain seem as evil as possible.

Of course, thanks to a perverse interpretation of the law by the Supreme Court, third parties may use funds from unidentified sources to support or oppose anyone or anything. This has enabled candidates to be assisted by advertisements that cannot be traced back to them.

Naturally, all statements in an ad may be “true” and still leave an impression that is false. This is done by taking statements out of context or otherwise misrepresenting the significance of another’s actions. For this reason candidates must now have enormous advertising budgets -- to defend themselves against the “truth” being told by their opponents.

Some pairs of candidates don’t bother to hit at each other. In the race for governor, John Gregg and Mike Pence played nicely with each other almost to the very end of the campaign. Each tried to draw a portrait of himself without reference to his opponent’s character and record. This way, voters remained ignorant of the considerable similarities and differences of the two men.

Since candidates on the campaign trail rarely meet anyone opposed to them, it is not surprising that voter response to advertisements is muted. The consequence is that we are likely to get more ads until the public finds its voice. If we want more focus on significant issues, we need to let politicians know we do not want our public officials sold to us like tooth paste and toilet paper.

Morton Marcus is an independent economist, writer and speaker.

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