We should all be more weary of political advertisements
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Many people are preparing for Halloween. But the real horror show began about one month ago when media outlets started airing the insult to our intelligence political ads and commercials via broadcast media, cable, digital, streaming video and radio.
What do we know about political advertising? Not much.
Jim Martin for the Camera
It’s not just that these ads are so bad. No, the real problem is that we just can’t avoid them, as we used to by using the TV’s remote control button. Here’s an ominous related note:
The New York Times reported that in the last few weeks, tens of thousands of voters in the Detroit area were watching streaming video services. But depending on political leanings, neighbors may have seen different political ads based on large amounts of personal information collected by election campaigns.
Outsiders have collected and sold information about people’s voting records, party affiliation, age, gender, race, ethnicity, estimated home value, shopping habits, views on gun control and other criteria that no one should have.
Concern about targeted political messaging in social media has grown significantly since the 2016 election when Russia-linked groups targeted American voters and used the data to send ads to specific audiences.
You should be outraged over this invasion of your privacy — unless you’re too busy mindlessly voting during an episode of “America’s Got Talent.”
I hope to clear up some election campaign clutter that we face just days away from an important midterm vote on Nov. 8. I want to lead you out of the mud, the smoke and mirrors of political ads and commercials, and grow your political commercials literacy.
It’s estimated that close to $9.7 billion will be spent on political ads for the midterms. AdImpact, an advertising tracking company, said that spending is up 144% since the 2018 cycle, and broke it down: $2.43 billion for gubernatorial races, $2.37 billion for the Senate, $1.88 billion for the House of Representatives and the remaining $3 billion will go to candidates listed lower on ballots.
Ben Taber, senior account manager at AdImpact, said, “Nationally we expect 2022 to be the largest political ad spending of all time.”
The most used political ad formats are a biography of a candidate; to increase a candidate’s name recognition; issue ads highlighting key topics, sometime called “positive ads”; comparison ads; get-out-the-vote ads and, finally, negative ads.
Facebook is the only game in town for digital political ads, making them the default winner of the race for campaign money. Rivals such as TikTok, Twitter and Amazon home video streaming services don’t allow political ads.
Eric Haley, professor of the Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee, said its research has found unexpectedly low levels of political literacy. “Our studies have shown that people, even politically active, highly educated people, do not understand the regulatory environment in which political advertising (and political speech) lives,” Haley said. He added that “coupled with low knowledge of issues in general, (it) means that most voters are not equipped to evaluate ads and make informed decisions based on them.”
the Political Advertising Literacy Research Group (PAL) at the University of Tennessee (Haley helped form the PAL) and the University of Illinois investigates how much US voters know about political advertising. PAL also tries to improve voters’ election knowledge to help them cope with misleading political advertising.
PAL identifies three major obstacles to voters that prevent them from understanding political ads.
(1) There’s a lack of regulations regarding whether or not the content of political ads is truthful.
PAL points out that the truth in advertising laws that are in place for commercial products have not been applied to political advertising. For example, advertising for a bar of soap requires more regulation than that for a political ad.
(2) The regulation of political advertising on social media is even lower than it is for traditional media.
The Federal Election Commission is in charge of regulating political advertising, but it hasn’t kept up with the current media environment. Many platforms bar political advertisements, but Facebook, in particular, and Google provide little transparency about the source of the ads.
There’s a Pew research study that found that more than half of Americans surveyed said social media shouldn’t allow any political ads.
(3) Big donors and corporations can legally make large contributions through political action committees (PACs).
Haley said the lack of mandated transparency about the ad’s source is a major obstacle to voters’ ability to assess the ad’s truthfulness. He said, “Voters cannot know if the message they are seeing is from a concerned citizens’ group or merely a political action committee.”
Thus there’s a considerable amount of political advertising in which it’s difficult to identify the donors, including foreign countries.
Think about that: You can give unlimited amounts of money and still protect your anonymity. The lack of oversight is frightening.
The PAL website provides a valuable resource to voters who would like to be better informed about political advertising.
The PAL offers these questions to ask in order to help improve your campaign ad literacy:
• Has an ad taken a candidate’s words out of context and given a misleading interpretation of what the candidate actually said?
• Has the ad taken a true fact out of context? One example: A senator voted against a bill that had a provision to increase funding for school lunches. The senator voted against the bill because she felt that it had things in it that actually might harm children. The opponent used that fact to claim the senator voted against nutrition for children and that she’s anti-children. But the opponent failed to mention that the senator had voted more than 50 times in favor of bills in favor of school lunch programs.
• Watch out for ads making improper use of phony images of the opponent. Technological advances have made this practice particularly evil.
• Watch out for unsupported facts presented in political commercials. There’s no such thing as “alternative facts.”
In a democracy, political advertising should offer truthful information so voters can make informed decisions about candidates and issues, opines the Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising. This can only be achieved by improving our knowledge of political literacy.
Be informed. All campaign ads have just one purpose: to win elections.
Jim Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.