There are dozens of ways to learn facts and consider informed opinions concerning an election. But the absolutely worst of them is television commercials or any other form of advertising.
On television, in anywhere between 15 to 60 seconds, you might learn that a candidate has a wife and four kids and feeds fresh peanuts to the local squirrels. At worst, you learn that the candidate’s opponent is a member of a satanic cult and slaughters kittens in his spare time.
The problem with political ads, particularly in light of their almost universal lack of useful or even truthful information, is not that they don’t work. The problem is that like all forms of competently produced advertising, they do work.
And the proof is advertising for prescription drugs.
Think about it: the typical ad for a new wonder drug spends up to 95% of its audio describing the dangers of the drug. But big pharma buys the time anyway.
Commercial producers use the video portion of the ad to mitigate the audio as much as possible. Scenes flash by showing the purported prescription user enjoying life to the very fullest, the very picture of robust health.
The subject may be shown resting peacefully in a hammock, walking on a beach with a loved one, playing dodge ball with grandchildren, hang-gliding, surfing, playing guitar in a heavy metal band, backpacking, and volunteering as a civilian advisor to a Navy Seals operation whose goal is to dive under an iceberg and blow it up to clear a major shipping lane.
Unfortunately, the video depictions are in dire contrast to the audio portion of the commercial. Nevertheless, the script reader gamely delivers it in measured, calming tones at a lightning pace so it can all be squeezed in, and it usually goes something like this:
“Ask your doctor about Festernot, which can mitigate some of the effects of lingering jungle rot and may also help lower your blood pressure.
“Festernot is only to be used on a doctor’s orders, and must be taken via a hypodermic syringe shot to the armpit.
“It is not to be used by children, individuals with normal blood pressure, anybody who has voted for a third-party candidate in a general election, people who have had a beer within the last 30 days, or people who are left-handed and hold a degree in accounting.
“Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, itching, fluid discharges from the ears, changes in eye color, the heartbreak of psoriasis, heartbreak in general, hair loss, loss of appetite, the accumulation of navel lint, ear fluid puddling, paralysis, dangerously lowered blood pressure, loss of blood pressure, and death.
“Death by Festernot is not covered by standard life insurance policies and payment of benefits may be denied. Should death occur, normal burial may not be possible, and the family of the deceased may be required to contract the services of a firm accredited in the disposal of nuclear waste.
“Use as directed.”
Is it possible that as an advertising message this can actually get worse? Oh my, yes! The consumers watching the commercial can’t even go out and buy the product. They have to pay good money for a visit to the doctor to see if they can get permission.
So in the end, you have a commercial with nightmarish audio content aimed at people who need an authorized note to buy what the commercial is selling.
Now listen up, folks. The people who run pharmaceutical companies did not rise to the top by being stupid or wasting money. Clearly, these ads move drugs.
Political ads are the same. They aren’t so much trying to provide information as they are trying to move product—in this case, the career of a politician.
I am proud to say that pharmaceutical ads don’t succeed in my case. I don’t ask my doctor if I can take a drug because I saw it on TV. I let my doctor tell me which drugs, if any, I need, and I want that list to be as short as possible.
When it comes to political ads, I am even more skeptical. Although not all political ads are untruthful, I do not expect to learn anything from them and further suspect that I’m much more likely to get misleading or false information than useful information.
I use a multitude of information sources and my personal experiences to inform my voting decisions. I urge you to do the same. Although that lowered blood pressure side effect from Festernot is tempting when I see a particularly disturbing political ad.