Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Attack Ads

It is the political season, and we are starting to see a lot of political advertisements.

There is one particular type of advertisement that I am interested today – one that shows that the person who sponsored (or "approves of") this message is somebody of dubious moral character. It is a type of advertisement where a candidate speaks about what the other candidate has voted on or wants to do.

"My opponent voted to abolish social security," or "My opponent said that he has no interest in protecting the lives and freedoms of Americans," or similar statement.

These types of advertisements are often called, "attack ads." However, that term is far too broad. It is often used to refer to any advertisement that says anything negative about an opponent. Yet, taken to its extreme, a prohibition on "attack ads" or “negative advertising” would also be a prohibition on saying many true things about others. The problem with these advertisements is not that they "attack" or that they are 'negative'. The problem is that they are dishonest.

These types of advertisements fall into a type of political strategy where the goal for the candidate is to "define" her opponent. He "defines" her as being soft on crime, or weak on national defense, or as heartless, or as unpatriotic. He does so by taking votes and statements out of their original context and presenting them to the public in such a way that the public is invited to give a negative view of that opponent.

"My opponent voted against armor for American troops in Iraq."

That’s doubtful. I doubt that any Senator or Representative said, "I think it is better to have American soldiers blown to bits than to protect them from bombs and bullets." Chances are that there was something else going on here. Chances are that the advertisement, in failing to look at the context in which the vote was cast, is imply not being honest about what "my opponent" did.

This illustrates what is wrong with these types of advertisements. They are almost always lies. I think that a strong case can be made that every advertisement where one candidate talks about what his or her opponent did or said is a lie – because none of those advertisements have enough time to include enough context to give the reader or listener an accurate understanding of the event. They can only lift the vote or statement out of context. But lifting a vote or statement out of context results in changing its meaning. Presenting this changed meaning as the meaning of the actual vote or statement is a lie – an untruth.

I have defined a lie as any action that communicates to others a proposition that is not true. A person lies when he believes that X, he wants somebody else to believe not-X, and communicates with that somebody else in some way that intends to promote in that person a belief that not-X.

That is exactly what these advertisements do – promote attitudes that are not true. That is exactly what these advertisements must do. There is no way to design an advertisement like this that is 30 to 60 seconds long that is not deceptive. Or, if there is a way, then it happens very, very rarely.

This is because these advertisements function by taking somebody else's vote, or somebody else's statement, out of its context. As such, they report that the opponent said something that he did not say, or that he cast a vote that he did not cast.

The only way to be honest about what the opponent said or did would be to put the vote or the statement back in its original context, and to look at the reasons for and against that action. However, putting the action back in its original context takes a great many more words – which is why a 30 second advertisement of the form, "My opponent voted to do this," or "My opponent said that," cannot possibly tell the truth. It is because the people making the advertisement cannot put the vote or statement in its correct context in 30 seconds.

There is a second problem with this type of political advertisement. Defining oneself or others takes money. The idea is that, if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. So, this tactic throws the election to whomever can throw the most lies in front of the average voter. The person who can lie the most often and the loudest is the one with the most money. The opponent, unless he also has money, cannot prevent herself from being defined in this way, and will almost certainly lose the race.

Consequently, because we are a culture that allows this type of deception and because we respond to it by believing these distortions rather than condemning the liar, we live in a society where the dishonest candidate is the most likely winner and the dishonest candidate who sells himself for the most money can defeat the dishonest candidate who attracts less money.

The remedy for this problem is to condemn the candidate who lies to earn public office – who produces an advertisement that falsely claims that they can accurately present what their opponent has done or believes in 30 seconds or less. The instant that one of these types of advertisements comes on the air, you should know that the candidate supporting the advertisement is fundamentally dishonest.

And that, more than the misleading context in the message, is what should determine your vote. The country would be better off if we were to make it a cultural priority to keep these types of people out of public office.


Sheldon said...

While I agree, perhaps we should go further in acknowledging that TV political ads are useless to a political process based on reason. Thus there ubuiquity. They are purely for appeals to emotion with no real substantive content.

The newest McCain ad is a case in point. I fully expect Obama to eventually return tit for tat.

If only we could look forward to the the debates as a time when the actual issues are discussed. Unfortunately, the MSM has turned them into just another extended shallow campaign ad. A pathetic democracy we have.

Burt Likko said...

While I won't dispute the basic notion that the candidate that runs a dishonest advertisement is likely to be dishonest in other ways himself, the practice is so widespread as to disenfranchise any voter who acts as you suggest. Both major candidates have lied, a lot, already in this campaign season, and no one realistically hopes for things to get better by November. And while we might throw our support behind a third-party candidate, again, realism suggests that the only real options will be one of the two major parties' nominees.

So is it a matter of deciding which candidate lies the least? If so, how is that distinguishable from a simple, unprincipled decision about personal preference on a single issue or an emotional response to a candidate's charisma?

On a related note, is it better or worse for a candidate to lie about himself or about his opponent in an attempt to gain votes?

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as what can be done about this, because it is a real problem.

As things stand, the candidate who can lie the most (or most effectively) will win (going on the assumption that the assertions in this post are accurate, and they seem to be). To require that a candidate be honest in order to get your vote results in every person who is devoted to honestly not voting at all. As a result, only those those who don't much care for honesty get a voice in deciding who becomes the next president. This seems counter-productive.

(as fair disclosure, I currently volunteer for the Obama campaign, and this probably colors any opinions I may have)

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I'm curious as what can be done about this, because it is a real problem.

Step 1: Create a non-profit organization, "Society for Political Honesty."

Step 2: Create an anti-attack-ad ad using the following script.

- Begin with a 5-second clip from a currently running attack ad.

- Announcer stops the ad (using a remote control on a television).

"That was an attack ad. In political terms, candidates use these to 'define' their opponent.

Of course, no candidate wants to define their opponent favorably, so they look for a vote or a statement they can take out of context. Free of the context that gave the original act meaning, they can then twist it in whatever ways they find politically useful.

There is no way that attack ad can be an honest account of what the opponent actually believes. You can't fit that kind of honesty into 30 seconds. So, all attack ads are lies and distortions. And the candidates who approve of them them are candidates who contribute to a political culture of lies and distortions.

Let's put an end to the attack ad. Let's promote political honesty by putting an end to the political careers of those who think that lies and distortions are a legitimate way to earn public office."

Step 3: Whenever a candidate starts to run an attack ad, put a clip of that ad into the the first 5-segment slot, take it to that district, and collect money to run the anti-attack-ad spot in the same region.

Or something to that effect.

Anonymous said...

While I think your solution is valid it only demands a more devious form of attack ad. An announcer can speak whole truths but add a wink, a grimace, a nod that "twists" the meaning . . . sort of like a "nudge nudge wink wink". The nasty objective could also be used by creating what we called "tension between audio and visual" by displaying in the background, visuals that disagree with the spoken word. For example, we had a youth program on our national network proclaim its opposition to the Nietnam War by employing a poetry reading that glorified war while "Kapa" photographs showing terrible scenes ran in the background. Veterans were outraged but their "objections" were blunted.

Our world functions on employing "untruths" . . . we are so concerned with Amendment Rights, Legalities, etc. that "common sense" is no longer "common" and the guy with the bucks sways the crowd who are actually more concerned about their i-tunes and games than about global or national events.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree on some level with you. While it is true that saying: "My opponent hates children" because they voted to allow gays to adopt (or to not fund an after school program) is clearly dishonest, I disagree with your larger statement.

If I say: "my sister is nice" it is not a lie, however, according to your definition it appears to be a lie because I don't include the context of the fact that once when she was nice it was because she was getting rewarded, and that one time she *did* actually yell at that man.

Requiring that "truth" always include a full and total accounting of everything is impossible. Frankly, I do think (for instance) that McCain is anti-woman. I can explain what I mean about that (his usage of sexist slurs directed against his wife, and thus presumably anyone else, his abysmal voting record in regards to abortion rights, the fact that he has voted against including birth control in health insurance which nonetheless covers viagra, etc....) but that doesn't make the overarching statement any *less* true, it just helps to flesh it out more fully.

Anonymous said...

On more reflection, your statement about purely appeals to emotion really summarizes an unsolvable situation bacause the majority of the people have no time for the truth. Most of them relate to any "sound byte" that they can "use" to justify their (in)action.
When America is swayed by can labels that proclaim "no Cholesterol" without concern for how cholesterol actually occurs, the marketers have won because they know that the majority of the market can be won by an emotional appeal . . . no matter how far their claims are from the truth.

Sheldon said...

Is this what you have in mind Alonzo?

Although they probably are not non-partisan.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Close, with a couple of changes.

(1) The clip is not an attack on 'attack ads' as a species, but about a specific attack ad. It doesn't make any general statement about 'this type of ad'. So, it is too narrowly focused.

(2) Really, to be an assault on 'attack ads' as described, it has to be non-Partisan. The organization has to go after Democratic and Republican attack ads at the same time.

Anonymous said...

the crowd who are actually more concerned about their i-tunes and games than about global or national events.

I do think this is a little unfair. I recently heard it put this way: When an average liberal Chinese citizen gets in his car in the morning and discovers it won't start, what causes him more distress... the fact that his car won't start, or the fact that his government is supressing basic freedoms?

That goes for us too. I seriously doubt anyone here has gone 5 years without a decent mode of transportation, yet we've all gone 5 years with a dysfunctional government.

That's because 1 - the government generally does not directly and immediately influence our lives (unlike a car that won't start), and 2 - we have the power to quickly and effectivly fix the car problem. Maybe all these crowds of people are just effectively prioritizing their time and energy in a way that has the most impact upon things that cause them the most distress.

(And again, I'm not advocating this behavior, I feel it often leads to the Tragedy of the Commons, but it is not simply because they are stupid sheep.)

Burt Likko said...

This site may interest you, Alonzo, if you are not already aware of it.

Anonymous said...

eneasz: "A little unfair", yes, but your use of distress level would only involve the victims of a dysfunctional government. There have been sufficient supporters of that government because the supporters have very little distress in their lives (unless you count the existence of Atheists, Gays, same sex marriage, stem cell research, creaping socialism, etc.) and since this government appears to have these items under control . . . play on!

P.S. The "decent mode of transportation" reference may be true but maybe the cost of filling the tank may eventually wake up America, at least the middle class.

Anonymous said...

You know, a touch of intellectual honesty goes a long way...

Using the words "I think" or "It appears {that}" to qualify statements in an attack ad defuses much of the dishonesty. It's one thing to say "Barack doesn't support our troops", but quite another to indicate that this appears to be the case.

Obviously, this is a radical change, as far as political advertising and campaigning goes. Whether the public wants it or whether the campaigns think the public wants it, every politician portrays issues in black and white as this results in the appearance of that candidate being a "leader".

"McCain sucks" is a statement of fact, and is indicative of an opining candidate with strong convictions; he/she appears to be a leader.

"I think McCain sucks" is much less strongly worded, even though it can not be proven to be factually untrue. Of course, this might also be perceived as "wimpy" - but I have faith in Marketting's ability to turn any image/statement/sound into something positive.

I guess what I'm saying is this: semantics should be part of the solution. I very much agree with Alonzo's overall assessment, but I think manipulation of the medium (30 seconds of video/audio) is too limited to produce real & noticeable change.

Financing, public education (ie. critical thinking, valuing honesty over emotional string-pulling) and small changes to the language being employed. These things together might make a difference.

Incidentally, I've been casually interested in advertising practices and trends ever since I was a little kid. I've often thought about the issue Alonzo talks about here...