Political Advertising: It’s ‘Different,’ All Right

Going to participate in American democracy? Wear your boots.

The first time I was asked to lend my advertising experience to a political campaign, most of my suggestions were quickly shot down.

“Political advertising,” I was told, “isn’t like ‘regular’ advertising.”

Boy, is that true. And another election cycle, about to close, underscores the ugly differences.

First, there’s the fact that, unlike “regular” advertising, in which claims must substantiated and deception is illegal, there are no standards for honesty in political advertising.


So Mark Schauer, Democratic candidate for Michigan governor, can claim that the Rick Snyder administration cut $1 billion from education. Which is completely untrue.

So the Michigan Democratic Party can run an ad quoting Michigan Senate candidate Ken Horn totally out of context and completely – and intentionally deceptively — changing the meaning of the quote. The Michigan Republican Party can run an ad picturing Horn’s opponent, Stacy Erwin Oakes, with expensive luxury items, implying — deceptively intentionally — that she is misspending taxpayer funds.

Yet during this same election cycle, the Federal Trade Commission has gone after dozens of companies for making advertising claims that were misleading, false or deceptive, including:

  • A claim that an online educational program would improve students’ test scores
  • Claims that a Gerber baby food line can help prevent infants from developing allergies
  • AT&T’s reference to “unlimited” data service in some of its network plans
  • A warning shot across the bows of more than 60 national advertisers that they faced fines if they did not correct inadequate disclosures in their advertising.

Double Standard

Courts have repeatedly ruled that commercial advertising is free speech under the protection of the first amendment. So why is there regulatory oversight over one form of free speech, but not over another? Why is commercial “free speech” less “free” than political “free speech?”

One could make a constitutional, founders-intent-based argument: Political speech must be protected from government interference. Which, I think, is vulnerable to an equally compelling counter-argument: Doesn’t the selection of our leaders merit the same standards of truth in advertising as our choice of a cell phone plan?

The truth, I suspect, has more to do with who makes the rules. Political advertising is exempt from regulation for the same reason that political calls are exempt from the “Do Not Call” registry: politicians write the laws.

That we have one standard of “truth” for commercial free speech, and another – or, rather no standard — for political free speech is the height of hypocrisy. Worse, it is a disservice to voters, and to our republic.

Of course, there’s another big difference between political advertising and “regular” advertising – or, what I think we should call “real” advertising.

‘Real Advertising’

Real advertising is designed to build markets. Advertising practices that do not are quickly abandoned. Political advertising, on the other hand, is the only type of advertising that’s allowed to actually shrink the market.

Let’s look at it this way. We’ve all seen advertising from Coke and Pepsi, or McDonald’s and Burger King, fierce competitors in industries in which a single point of market share is worth billions of dollars.

There’s a reason that Coke’s advertising messages are not “Pepsi tastes terrible,” why Pepsi’s spots are not “Coke rots your guts out.” There’s a reason why Burger King doesn’t call McDonald’s hamburger a dried-out wad of cardboard, and why McDonald’s doesn’t out BK’s “flame broiling” as a quick flash after the burger’s already fried.

That’s because both sides know what happens once that kind of battle escalates. People get turned off to both McDonald’s and Burger King — and go to neither. Yes, one or the other may gain a point or two of market share, but it’s of a shrinking market.

While commercial advertising occasionally ventures into bashing the competition, those ill-advised forays generally don’t last long. Nobody wins when you turn off potential customers.

The people who head up the firms that handle most of this country’s political advertising, however, may have gotten that memo, but their hubris made them ignore it. Political advertising strategists are fiercely competitive but, in general, poor business strategists. Either they fail to understand the difference between primary and secondary marketing, or they cynically ignore it.

Primary marketing is delivering the prospect to the first decision: I’m going to buy a car, I’m going to buy a burger, I’m going to vote for a candidate.

Secondary marketing is delivering the prospect to the actual buying decision: I’m going to buy a Ford, I’m going to buy a Whopper, I’m going to vote for Snyder.

The Shrinking Market

When the entire advertising landscape consists of messages that say, “all the car choices are dangerous,” “all the burger choices will make you sick,” and “all the candidates are crooks,” what happens? The market shrinks.

So why has U.S. voter turnout continued an overall downward trajectory since … well, 1872? Why, in 1960, did 75% of Americans feel confident in the capabilities of government while today, only 40% do?

I saw a wonderful anecdotal support for this just this week. A candidate’s campaign ran a Facebook post linking to its latest ad — an ad touting all the ways the opponent was attacking the middle class.

One of the comments following the post said, “That’s why I’m not voting for any of them.” What’s even more ironic is that advertising designed to make people angry — as most negative ads do — has been demonstrated to be the least effective way to make people change their minds.

So you’re not only making the market smaller, you’re not even moving the needle on your share of it. Those of us in the “regular” advertising world are not allowed to consider that “effective” advertising.

There is a considerable body of research on the topic and it is, naturally, conflicting. I suspect that’s because much of it is done on behalf of political consultants to prove that their methods are effective. (It’s a running joke in “real” advertising that salespeople from any form of media will have charts and graphs to demonstrate why their TV, radio, online or skywriting plan will produce the highest ROI.)

Those of us who practice advertising every day — “real” advertising, that is — know that you can’t get into a mudslinging war without getting dirty yourself. And when the public looks at two “products” covered with mud, they shake their heads, move on and look for products sold somewhere there are adults in the room.

Negative political advertising, and deceptive political advertising, do, in fact work. If your goal is to turn people away from the polls, erode their confidence in our leaders and increase their cynicism about our institutions of government.

So the question for our political advertising experts would be: Is that what’s best for America?