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The Bull Market

Political Advertising

Robert W. McChesney (rwmcches [at] is Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His books include The Political Economy of Media and The Problem of the Media, both from Monthly Review Press. John Nichols writes for The Nation and is the author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (Nation Books).

The United States is in the midst of its quadrennial presidential election, a process that now extends so long as to be all but permanent. The campaign is also drenched in more money given by a small handful of billionaires than has been the case in the past. Since the 1970s the amount spent on political campaigns has increased dramatically in almost every election cycle. It has led to the formation of what we term the “money-and-media election complex,” which has a revenue base in the many billions of campaign dollars donated annually, and has effectively become the foundation of electoral politics in the United States. Moreover, the rate of increase in campaign spending from 2008 to 2010, and especially from 2008 to 2012, is now at an all-time high.

American elections are being transformed and supercharged by the Supreme Court’s January 2010 Citizens United ruling. But the changes, even at this early stage of the 2012 campaign, have proven more dramatic and unsettling than all but the most fretful analysts had imagined. Citizens United’s easing of restrictions on corporate and individual spending, especially by organizations not under the control of candidates, has led to the proliferation of “Super PACs.” These shadowy groups do not have to abide by the $2,500 limit on donations to actual campaigns, and they can easily avoid rules for reporting sources of contributions.

The two logical questions then are where does all this money get spent and what are the effects of this spending on elections and the political system? The short answer to the first question is known by all participants in and observers of American elections: the majority of the money goes to political advertising, and within political advertising the vast majority goes to television ads. The percentage of campaign spending that goes to TV ads has increased sharply over the past forty years. If there is a rule it is that the closer a race, the more money will be spent on the campaigns, and the higher the proportion that will go to paid TV political advertisements. “We spent the vast majority of our money last time on broadcast television,” Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod told attendees at a 2011 cable convention. “It’s still the nuclear weapon.”1 This year, according to a fresh report to investors from Needham and Company’s industry analysts, television stations will reap as much as $5 billion—up from $2.8 billion in 2008.

As for the second question, there is a range of effects. That is what we turn to in this Review of the Month.

For Americans born after 1950, and for those born before 1950 but with faltering memories, the televised commercial deluge that now defines American political campaigns likely seems the natural order of things, for better or for worse.2 But American campaigns were significantly different in the 175 years before political advertising, specifically television political advertising, became the order of the day. When one reads Theodore White’s epic The Making of the President series, especially for 1960 and 1964, the emerging role of television is a recurring theme—but TV political advertising is barely present in the early 1960s volumes. By White’s account, Nixon paid virtually no attention to his Madison Avenue advisors throughout his unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign.3 Joe Klein recounts how his research shows that in the 1950s and ‘60s candidates routinely hired advertising experts and pollsters, “But these were peripheral advisers; they didn’t run the campaigns.”4

This quickly changed. In 1969 Joe McGinniss published his groundbreaking The Selling of the President, to chronicle what he termed “a striking new phenomenon—the marketing of political candidates as if they were consumer products.” The book, which involved McGinniss spending time with Nixon’s television advertising advisors including Roger Ailes during the 1968 presidential campaign, seemed shocking and a sharp departure from the political-driven campaign narratives provided by the likes of White. McGinniss documented how Nixon came to rely upon TV political commercials, based on Madison Avenue marketing principles, as the foundation of his campaign. In the book Ailes presciently concludes immediately after the November victory, “This is the beginning of a whole new concept. This is it. This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore.”5 It is ironic that today, when one reads the book, it seems downright quaint, even homespun, in comparison to subsequent elections. The liberal McGinniss is able to wander through the corridors of power in Nixon’s campaign like a serendipitous hippie roaming around at Woodstock. The narrative reminds one of the Dr. Evil character in the Austin Powers film who returns to life in 1997 after being frozen for thirty years, and then threatens to blow up the world unless he is given his ransom demand ofone million dollars.

Consider also The Candidate, a 1972 film about a young idealistic California candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, starring Robert Redford. The film, with a screenplay by a former Eugene McCarthy speechwriter, dealt with the phoniness and superficiality that marketing and television had brought to political campaigns. It was provocative and controversial and contributed to subsequent debates about the role of money in politics. TV political advertising plays an important role in the piece and is cast in a negative light. But what is ironic is that the TV ads Redford’s character airs in the fictional campaign are closer to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in tone and substantive content than they are to the asininity that typifies political ads of more recent vintage. Ads of that caliber today would have political scientists and pundits shouting from the mountaintops that we were free at last. But in 1972 such ads were considered highly suspect and part of the problem.

As it was, by 1972 the total amount spent for all races on television political advertising, and that so alarmed McGinniss, Redford, and the nation—from President and House and Senate to governorships, mayors, state legislatures, referenda, initiatives and city council, the works!—had increased almost fourfold from 1960 to reach $37 million.6 That would amount to approximately $200 million in 2012 dollars; so, factoring for inflation, the 1972 election spent less than 3 percent of what will be spent on TV political ads in the 2012 election cycle.

For a concrete example, in 1972, a little-known Colorado Democrat, Floyd Haskell, spent $81,000 (roughly $440,000 in 2010 dollars) on television advertising for a campaign that unseated incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Allott. The figure was dramatic enough to merit note in a New York Times article on Haskell’s upset win. Fast-forward to the 2010 Senate race, when incumbent Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet defeated Republican Ken Buck. The total spent on that campaign in 2010 (the bulk of which went to television ads) topped $40 million, more than $30 million of which was spent by Super PAC-type groups answering only to their donors. In the last month of the election, negative ads ran nearly every minute of every day. The difference in spending, factoring in inflation, approached one hundred-to-one. The 2010 Colorado Senate race is generally held up by insiders as the bellwether for 2012 and beyond. As Tim Egan puts it, “This is your democracy on meth—the post–Citizens United world.”

The total number of TV political ads for House, Senate, and Gubernatorial candidates in 2010 was 2,870,000. This was a 250 percent increase in the number of TV ads as there were for the same category of races in 2002. In terms of spending, and compared strictly to 2008, just two years earlier, House race TV ads cost 54 percent more in 2010 and the cost of Senate race TV ads was up 71 percent.7 By the end of 2011 it was already clear that 2012 would have a quantum leap in campaign spending from 2008, the greatest increase in American history, and much of this would go to TV political ads. “In 2010, it was just training wheels, and those training wheels will come off in 2012,” says Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. “There will be more bigger groups spending, and not just on one side but on both sides.”8

This is not a commercial market where a speculative boom leads to an eventual bust. This is a political market and it is going in one direction, quickly. The federal and state budgets are enormous multi-trillion-dollar troughs and there is no sign that corporate interests are anywhere near their upward limit of what they will pay to have access to them and control the laws, policies, subsidies, and regulations that affect their profitability. Indeed, it is possible that 2012 may one day appear to be a democratic panacea compared to what lies ahead, much like 1968 or 1972 looks to us today.

Any way you slice it, to mix metaphors, we are not in Kansas anymore.

Political Advertising and Traditional Advertising

When television political advertising first became prominent in American campaigns, by the 1960s and early ‘70s, the common criticism of the practice was that political advertising was bad because it was advertising, that it substituted the hustle and chicanery of a Madison Avenue sales job for the meat and potatoes of political debate and democratic governance. Lincoln and Douglas were replaced by Procter & Gamble. “Madison Avenue sells politicians like soap,” the lament went. The very term Madison Avenue provided a shorthand critique of advertising’s lack of ethics, sincerity, and integrity, and it encapsulated much of what people felt they were subjected to with TV political commercials. In 1960, for example, Richard Nixon so feared the tag “Madison Avenue” that he moved his campaign’s television advisers—according to White, “the finest brains of New York’s advertising agencies”—from their ad agency offices on that (in)famous street to new offices on nearby Vanderbilt Avenue.9

Back in this era, before it became a multi-billion dollar industry, stalwarts in the advertising industry were often offended by the comparison of political advertising to commercial advertising, as they regarded the latter as having vastly greater integrity and social value. Advertising icon David Ogilvy called political spots “the most deceptive, misleading, unfair and untruthful of all advertising.”10 At another point, Ogilvy stated, “Political advertising ought to be stopped. It’s the only really dishonest kind of advertising that’s left. It’s totally dishonest.”11 When advertising executive Robert Spero was told that TV political advertising sold politicians like soap, he responded that unfortunately that was not the case, because soap advertising was so superior as a source of consumer information.

Spero was so appalled by political advertising that he took leave from his position at Oglivy & Mather in the late 1970s to do a comprehensive analysis of every available presidential television political commercial from 1952 through the 1976 election. In Spero’s mind, the key distinction between commercial ads and political ads was that political advertising, unlike commercial advertising, had First Amendment protection from regulation for fraud and misleading content. This point is indeed crucial and cannot be exaggerated: political advertising can pretty much say whatever it wants without fear of regulatory reprisal.

Spero’s book, The Duping of the American Voter, demonstrated in a meticulous and engaging case-by-case study that political ads for all varieties of candidates routinely had fraudulent traits that would have been impossible for a commercial advertiser facing the Federal Trade Commission and other forms of government regulation at that time. “Corporations and their advertising advisers have not become simon-pure in their evolvement from street hucksters. Historically, bending the truth has been inseparable from selling,” Spero wrote. “What has prevented the truth from being bent out of all proportion by corporations and their advertising agents is the phenomenal growth of advertising regulation over the past decade.”12

The arguments against political advertising from industry figures like Ogilvy and Spero have receded over the years, though grousing remains on the edges. To some extent it may be that the high-water mark of commercial advertising regulation faded after the 1970s as neoliberalism worked its magic through the regulatory system, so that argument was less compelling. To a larger extent it was that the emergence of the money-and-media election complex meant there was a massive piece of the action for Madison Avenue (and, as we discuss below, commercial media) so there was great incentive to accept the status quo, for better or for worse, and go with the flow. After all, can political advertising really be worse than junk food or pharmaceutical or tobacco advertising? What is clear is that any change of heart from Madison Avenue had little or nothing to do with the integrity or quality of the political ads themselves. A recent study of political spots cited by reputable sources found “roughly half of all ads to be unfair, misleading or deceptive.”13

In fact, Ogilvy and Spero were too quick to regard political advertising and product advertising as being distant relations, though their approach has been widely internalized among scholars. Political advertising is generally understood by political scientists and political communication scholars first and foremost as an outgrowth of political campaigning—understandably, as that is the tradition they come from—and particular attention is paid to identifying the common themes that link the present to earlier eras. Because blarney, bluster, deception, character assassination, showmanship, manipulation, idiocy, baby-kissing, superficiality, overstatement, ridicule, hypocrisy, and hyperbole have always been present in popular politics, the argument goes, Americans should not be so alarmed that these traits now come packaged as candidate TV ads. In the past the American democratic system always ended up working effectively, and voters were able to cut through the crap and use the system to accurately convey their core political values and concerns; there is little reason to think that will not remain the case in the era of political advertising. The system works; the more things change the more they stay the same.

This approach underplays or misses the decisive differences in the current nature of political campaigns wrought by TV political advertising. There is the matter of the enormous increase in funds necessary to successfully participate as a candidate, and the strings that come attached to these funds. There is also the matter of the power, sophistication, and ubiquity of political advertising, to the point where it replaces virtually everything else in the campaign, including all the forces that in theory could counteract the power of money and advertising. There is also the matter that people—to a significant extent, and rationally—detest political advertising in a manner that has no true precedent in American political campaigns. In our experience it is common to have conversations on the matter where we have been left with the impression that people—whatever their age, background, political position, or whether they loved or hated or were disinterested in electoral politics—looked favorably upon the prospect of living in a world where TV political advertising did not exist. Praise from the random citizen for the contributions of TV political advertising to our democracy in our experience has been about as frequent as unprovoked enthusiasm for the prospect of an IRS audit or emergency root canal work conducted by an amateur sans pain killer.

In our view, a more accurate appreciation of our current political campaigns can be generated by also understanding political advertising as a subset of commercial advertising. This approach has received too little attention from scholars, probably because so few of them have given much consideration to the matter, or seem to know much about it. Modern commercial advertising is not a function of what economists term “competitive markets,” meaning new businesses can easily enter existing profitable markets, increase output, lower prices, and make the consumer live happily ever after. Such markets tend to have relatively little advertising, if only because producers can sell all that they produce at the market price, over which they have little or no control. (Think of a wheat farmer in 1875.) This is why the largely local and competitive U.S. economy prior to the late nineteenth century had little advertising by the standards of the past one hundred years.

Modern persuasion advertising blossomed as a function of markets that were less competitive by economists’ standards, and are generally referred to as oligopolies. These are markets where a handful of firms dominate output or sales in the industry, and where they have sufficient market power that they can set the price at which their product sells. The key to an oligopoly is that it is very difficult for newcomers to enter the market, no matter how profitable it may be, because of the power of the existing players. Under oligopoly there is strong disincentive to engage in price warfare to expand one’s market share, because all the main players are large enough to survive a price war and all it would do is shrink the size of the industry revenue pie that the firms are fighting over. Indeed, the price in an oligopolistic industry will tend to gravitate toward what it would be in a pure monopoly so the contenders are fighting for slices of the largest possible revenue pie.14

At first blush, this is a pretty accurate picture of the U.S. economy of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The economy has become far more monopolistic over the past thirty years.15 It is also a good way, though by no means the only way, to understand the emergence and dominance of advertising. Although firms are not in what economists term competitive markets, they are most definitely engaged in monopolistic competition with each other to maximize their profits. Advertising emerges front and center as a major way to increase market share (and protect market share) without engaging in destructive profit-damaging price competition.

The election realm is similar to the economy in that it tends to be a duopoly in general elections, meaning there are usually only two options that could conceivably win, and, as in an oligopoly, these duopolists have used their “market power”—in this case control over election laws—to make it all but impossible for a third party to successfully establish itself as a legitimate contender. Even primary elections are almost always a matter of no more than two or three viable entrants except in a very small number of races. In economic theory this leads to an interesting conclusion: as Juliet Schor has put it, the smart play for a firm in a duopoly is to act like the other firm, not to differentiate itself.

C.B. Macpherson was among the first to understand modern electoral politics—the two-party system—in terms of oligopolistic and duopolistic market practices. “Where there are so few sellers,” Macpherson wrote concerning political parties, “they need not and do not respond to buyers’ demands as they must do in a fully competitive system.” This means the parties, like oligopolistic firms, can “create the demand for political goods” and largely dictate the “demand schedule for political goods.” In Macpherson’s argument, a duopolistic party system in a modern capitalist society like the United States will tend to gravitate to providing a “competition between elites,” which are the driving force and “formulate the issues.”16 The basics in the political economy are agreed upon by the two parties and off the table for public debate or discussion. In Macpherson’s view, the two-party system was ideal for the production of citizen apathy and depoliticization—especially among those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum—and for the maintenance of elite rule; i.e. what would be called a “weak democracy.” For supporting evidence, V.O. Key’s trailblazing research in the 1950s demonstrated the class bias in voting turnout—rich people often voted at nearly twice the rate of poor people—in the first half of the twentieth century.17

Macpherson provided these insights in the 1970s, before political advertising nudged the Richter scale in political science. If anything, the linkage of the two parties to elite economic interests is stronger today than it was in his era. But the economic analogy is only good for a broad brush stroke, because elections are not commercial marketplaces and duopolistic elections existed a very long time before the emergence of political advertising. For political advertising to emerge as a major factor required a number of developments, especially the establishment of commercial broadcasting. Those nations with limited or seriously regulated commercial broadcasting have less political advertising, and little political pressure to encourage it.

Where the oligopoly/persuasive advertising analogy is crucial to understanding political advertising is when we look at the content of the ads. Under conditions of oligopoly firms tend to produce similar products and sell them at similar prices. Therefore advertising that emphasizes price and product information can be ineffectual, if not counterproductive. (That type of price and product information advertising can be found in more competitive retail markets, or in classified advertising.) An ad campaign based on “Hey, buy our soft drink because it costs the same and tastes the same as our competitor” probably will not lead to awards, a promotion, or a long career. Firms put inordinate effort to create brands that are perceived as different from competitors and advertising is crucial in creating the aura surrounding these brands. To be fair, there are occasionally meaningful differences between products and ad agencies love nothing more than to have a product with something meaty they can build a campaign around.

But as often as not that is not the clear case. The legendary adman Rosser Reeves—said to be the professional model for the Don Draper character in the TV program Mad Men—was reputed to have repeated the same presentation for years for newly hired copywriters at his Ted Bates advertising agency in the 1960s. He would hold up two identical shiny silver dollars, one in each hand, and would tell his audience in effect: “Never forget that your job is very simple. It is to make people think the silver dollar in my left hand is much more desirable than the silver dollar in my right hand.”18 Reeves was an advocate of such deceptive advertising stratagems as presenting as new and unique what was actually old and ordinary in a given product. Moreover, much of the product differentiation built into a brand is superficial and not truly related to the utility provided by the product itself, but it provides the grist for an ad campaign. As advertising historian Stephen Fox observes, today’s cars, for example, are “two-ton packaged goods, varying little beneath the skins of their increasingly outlandish styling.”19 “Since most brands are basically not that different,” William Greider writes, “advertising’s fantasies provide as good a reason as any to choose one brand over another.”20

What this means for advertising content is that there is an endless search for ways to capture attention and differentiate products that exploit possibilities that may have little or nothing to do with the actual product and the utility it might render to the consumer. It also leads to ads that attempt to make a product virtue out of something that is insignificant, or not specific to the product, or irrelevant. Take a look at endless beer ads or soap ads or oil company ads or countless other products to see the inanity and absurdity of much of what passes for advertising. Pabst beer, for example, simultaneously markets itself as a downscale working-class brew, an ironic cool brew for urban hipsters, and as a champagne substitute and signifier of conspicuous consumption in China. “The same beverage means very different things to different people,” as Eli Pariser puts it.21

Likewise, advertising tends to be expert at playing upon emotions and using fear as a motivational weapon. Television advertising, in particular, uses cultural cues to communicate fairly complex messages in less than thirty seconds, and exploiting stereotypes and cultural references to pack a lot of meaning into a few fleeting seconds. It uses visuals in such a way that if one only reads the text or listens to the words, they will miss the heart of what is being communicated.22 Humor is used on occasion, as well as sexuality whenever possible, and then some. Advertising is, in short, arguably the highest grade and most sophisticated system of applied propaganda in the world.

The nature of oligopolistic advertising leads to two paradoxes. First, it is said that the more products are alike and the more the prices are similar, the more the firms must advertise to convince people they are different. The second paradox of advertising is that the more firms advertise to distinguish themselves from their competition, the more commercial “clutter” there is in the media and culture. As a result firms are forced to increase their advertising that much more to get through the clutter and reach the public.23 If there is anything close to an iron law in advertising, it is this: repetition works; the more exposure to a brand’s advertising the better. This follows from the conclusion drawn from social science research: people are more inclined to believe what they have heard before.24 It does not guarantee success, but it increases the odds considerably.

This, we submit, is a good and necessary way to understand the practices of the money-and-media election complex and the content of much of political advertising. As its role has grown, an industry has emerged with experts who refine its use strategically and tactically. Research is done to determine what appeals will work with the target audience to get the desired results, and advertising is produced to generate the appeal.25 Sophisticated research breaks voters into minuscule niches that can be better exploited. The basics of how the corporate economy is structured or U.S. foreign policy are pretty much off the table, much like price and product information in beer advertising, because the two parties largely concur on the most important matters of governance. To the extent those subjects are broached it is largely done in an opportunistic and manipulative manner, based upon buzzwords fire tested by research on the target audience.

In short, one should start with the premise that the content of political advertising will have all the value of a commercial for beer or soft drinks. That the material in the ads may be factually inaccurate or, more likely, may be decontextualized half-truths is not a surprise, nor a pressing concern to those producing the ads. According to the most comprehensive research on the topic, nearly all political ads “make at least a limited appeal to emotions,” particularly enthusiasm and fear, “and a substantial majority make a strong emotional appeal.”26 Julian Kanter, curator of the Political Commercial Archive of the University of Oklahoma, observes that in TV political ads “the most important messages are those that are contained in the visual imagery.” That imagery, he points out, “can be used to create impressions that are untrue.” Through such visual tricks, campaigns duck the scrutiny they might face when only the words in the script are read.27 That the material in the ads may not be pertinent to the real issues the candidate will be addressing once in office or what they might do on the real issues they might face is beside the point. The point is to win elections by any means necessary.

No one understood this better than Lee Atwater, the political mastermind who guided George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign. Atwater explained that the battle between the two parties was always about winning the “populist vote.” “It is always the swing vote,” he said. This was all done through political marketing, and, as Atwater conceded, had little to do with how either party would actually govern.28 By the 1990s research demonstrated that most candidates had little or nothing to do with the marketing of their campaigns and the content of the advertising. This became the domain of the professional consultant, whose job is to win elections, period.29

Moreover, the two paradoxes of commercial advertising apply as well. Candidates with less tangible records to distinguish themselves from their opponents have to spend more to create the sense that there is a meaningful difference. Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, for example, need less spending to make clear they stand in fundamental opposition to their competition even within their own party. Second, when one’s competition spends a great deal on advertising, that puts extreme pressure on a candidate to match the advertising and, ideally, up the ante. This applies to the Pauls and Kuciniches as well as everyone else, if they are serious about winning. As the clutter increases, the only course is to push down harder on the political advertising accelerator, not hit the brakes. Indeed, recent research confirms that while TV ads are clearly effective, their positive effect decays quickly, so it is important once one goes on the air to stay full throttle until election day.30 The iron law applies: everything else being relatively equal, the candidate with a decisive TV advertising war chest will win.

Perhaps no campaign exemplifies the logic of commercial advertising better than that of Barack Obama’s presidential run in 2007–08. “I serve as a blank screen,” he wrote in his 2006 The Audacity of Hope, “on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”31 “By the time he won the presidential election, the Barack Obama brand had become a worldwide wonder,” the media scholar Leonard Steinhorn writes. “He had become an icon, someone who seemed to embody our most personal aspirations and hopes, a larger-than-life figure who exceeded the powers and abilities of any mere mortal.”32 Obama’s marketing team put together such an extraordinary advertising campaign—“Change You Can Believe in”—that it was awarded Advertising Age’s “Marketer of the Year” for 2008. To win the award Team Obama needed to get the most votes from the attendees at the annual conference of the Association of National Advertisers, people who know a good sales job when they see one. The runners-up included Nike and Coors beer.33

In retrospect Obama’s advertising campaign was ambiguous, if not vacuous or deceptive, in terms of governance and policy—though that is now accepted as par for the course. Everyone else does it, the conventional wisdom goes, so why should Obama be held to a different standard? McCain’s campaign slogan was “Country First.” The candidates could have easily swapped campaign slogans in the summer of 2007 and it would have had no effect on their actual policy positions. This is not a bull market for nothing.

The Obama campaign underlined another aspect of commercial advertising that applies full force to political advertising: it works! “We can say confidently that ads are persuasive, especially if you have more ads than your competitor,” Travis Ridout and Michael Franz, two leading researchers who have devoted careers to the subject, wrote in 2011, noting that leading research confirmed “ad effects were also more widespread than we had predicted.” “We have found that televised political advertising influences people’s voting choices, and more specifically, we have shown that ads are having their greatest influence on those who are the least informed about politics.” “Ads have greater influence,” they added, “in highly competitive races.”34

The most comprehensive examination of the 2008 presidential race—Kate Kenski’s, Bruce Hardy’s and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s award-winning The Obama Victory—confirms that Obama’s ability to greatly outspend McCain for television political advertising in battleground states, as well as nationally, was significant. Controlling for other variables, “We find that weeks in which Obama outspent McCain on national ads are significantly related to an Obama vote ‘if the election were held today.’” Specifically, in battleground states, the research determined that Obama’s ability to put far more advertising on the air all but destroyed McCain’s hopes for victory. “Whenever we grabbed a lead, a little toehold in a state,” a McCain media person stated, Obama would dump in a wave of new TV advertising “and explode the whole thing out for us.” The authors did not claim that Obama’s advertising necessarily won him the election, but, at the very least, it may well have been decisive in traditionally Republican-leaning states like Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia where the spending advantage was large and the vote tally was close.35 Likewise in 2010, the new wave of Republican outside groups outspent Democratic ones two-to-one, largely in tight battleground races, and accordingly, as one commentator noted, “annihilated them at the polls.”36

Crucially, research also suggests that television political advertising is even more effective in House and Senate races, not to mention other races further down the political food chain. “In presidential campaigns, voters may be influenced by news coverage, debates, or objective economic or international events,” Darrell M. West wrote in a report for the Congressional Quarterly in 2010. “These other forces restrain the power of advertisements and empower a variety of alternative forces. In congressional contests, some of these constraining factors are absent, making advertisements potentially more important. If candidates have the money to advertise in a congressional contest, it can be a very powerful force for electoral success.”37

Of course not all advertising works, and this is a matter that has driven business executives stir crazy for a century. “I know half of my advertising does not work,” goes the urban legend of an exasperated businessman, “but I do not know which half.” Only on the rarest of occasions have major advertisers actually curtailed their practices sharply absent their competitors doing the same, and it has been met with declining sales, and no enthusiasm by other advertisers to pursue a similar course.

The same is true with political advertising. “So much of presidential advertising is wasted money,” says Mark McKinnon, who made ads for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and worked for McCain in the 2008 primaries. “The ads become just background to a broad architecture the campaigns are trying to create. Easily half of the money spent on TV ads in presidential campaigns is a complete waste and would be better spent online or on other activities.”38 The fact remains, though, that TV political spending is not optional; it is necessary for political survival, not to mention success, in the contemporary United States as much as it is for a commercial advertiser like Coca-Cola or Coors beer or Nike shoes in an oligopolistic industry.

Back in the 1990s there were a handful of major candidates in statewide races who made a virtue of their unwillingness to accept large campaign donations, which meant they could not run anywhere near as many television ads as their opponents. Ed Garvey’s 1998 race for Wisconsin Governor or Russ Feingold’s 1998 Senate reelection campaign in Wisconsin are the most recent and striking examples; the consequences of those campaigns—Garvey lost in a landslide and Feingold barely won a race he by all rights should have won handily—sent a loud and clear message that such a course greatly increases chances of electoral failure. Since then, no major party candidate, not a single solitary one, has dared to emulate them with what is known derisively as “unilateral disarmament.”

Negative Advertising

There is one crucial area where political advertising differs sharply from commercial advertising, and it is here that the blood boils for the likes of Ogilvy and Spero. This is negative advertising, where the purpose of the advertising is to attack and denigrate the competition. In a commercial marketplace such advertising is of little value; although there can be some benefit in rare instances to devoting a campaign to attacking a major competitor, in general it is a waste of time. The point of commercial advertising is to protect and promote sales for the advertiser’s product, and ultimately increase profitability. There are no bonus points for simply decreasing a competitor’s sales, and in fact it might just take consumers away from the product category altogether, which would be counterproductive. So it is unlikely there will ever be an ad produced by Coors (or a front group bankrolled by Coors) to the effect that rumors have it employees at the Budweiser plant sometimes may urinate into the vats.

Not so with political advertising. Negative advertising can be tremendously effective, a smashing over-the-top boffo success, even if it does not generate a single new voter for the candidate (or supportive independent group) placing the ad. If it simply takes voters leaning toward the opponent and makes them less likely to vote for the opponent, maybe not vote at all, that is a victory. After all the point is to get the most votes and if you lower the number for the opponent, that has the same effect as increasing your own total. Moreover negative advertising can have the delicious side effect of forcing an opponent to respond to charges, no matter how spurious. Negative advertising can amplify spectacularly the classic political move captured by the story of the politician who told his campaign manager to start a rumor that his opponent was a child molester. “But he isn’t a child molester, is he?” responded the aide. “Of course not,” said the candidate, “but I want to hear him deny it.”

For these reasons negative ads have been a significant percentage of TV political ads since records have been kept, and have gradually increased in prominence to where they now account for a majority of all TV political ads.39 The most comprehensive research to date concludes that between 2000 and 2008 the overall percentage of TV political ads that were negative increased from 50 percent to 60 percent.40 And 2008 is already beginning to look like a tea party at the summer home of the Marquess of Queensbury. The percentage and amount of negative attack ads in 2010 was “unprecedented” and will increase sharply again in 2012 for a simple reason: the new independent groups formed with anonymous money following Citizens United—unencumbered by identification with candidate, party or even funding source—devote their resources primarily to negative attack ads.41

If political advertising is effective, negative political advertising can be especially effective. Obviously, it needs to be deployed with tactical and strategic considerations and there is always an element of risk that it could backfire.42 Even then, research from the 2008 primary campaigns suggests that negative ads that are widely regarded in exit polls as having been unfair can still be effective, and candidates can still get the votes of the people regarding their ads as unfair. Such advertising can sow doubt in people’s “guts,” and that can determine how a person votes.43 So it is not clear how damaging an “unfair” negative ad campaign can be to a campaign. The ones that are usually cited, like Jack Conway’s accusation in Kentucky’s 2010 U.S. Senate race that Rand Paul had acted weirdly when he was a college student, are done by candidates who are almost hopelessly behind in the polls and are akin to a “Hail Mary” pass.

But when done smartly and when fueled by piles of cash it can drive the talking points in a campaign like nothing else. When one thinks of the election-changing political ads in recent American history, they have usually been negative and more often than not entirely bogus. In Wisconsin, the 1986 U.S. Senate race provided a chilling example. Democratic challenger Ed Garvey had a solid lead over incumbent Republican Senator Robert Kasten two weeks out from election day. Kasten then ran a series of TV ads charging Garvey with embezzling money from his days as head of the National Football League Players Association. Garvey was low on money and there were no available TV spots, so he could not effectively respond—although the news media emphasized the charges were unproven, and probably bogus. Garvey lost the election by a hair, and shortly thereafter Kasten’s campaign apologized for the misleading and inaccurate ads. But Kasten, not Garvey, went to Washington for a six-year term.

Probably the most famous example came two years later in the 1988 presidential race between Democrat Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, and then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. In late summer Dukakis held a seventeen-point lead and was doing especially well with women voters and traditional Democrats. Under the aegis of Lee Atwater along with his staff that included Roger Ailes, the Republicans test-marketed attack ad ideas with a focus group of “Reagan Democrats” i.e. traditional white working-class Democrats who could be pried away if the discussion got away from economics and core government programs like Social Security and Medicare. The research hit the mother lode when Atwater saw how negatively the focus group responded to the story of how Governor Dukakis had provided a weekend furlough to Willie Horton, a black man who jumped his furlough and went on to rape a white woman. Atwater boasted, “By the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.”44 “The only question,” remarked Ailes during the campaign, “is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”45

Willie Horton did indeed become a household name.46 It is unclear how decisive the Willie Horton TV ad was to sandbagging the Dukakis campaign, but by all accounts it played an important role. What is also noteworthy is that the story about Dukakis was entirely decontextualized. The story conveyed nothing distinct about Dukakis that would have bearing on his conduct as President, and the policies he would have pursued. What came through was a scary black guy was raping white women and Dukakis seemed to be his unapologetic wingman; it was directly out of Rosser Reeves’ playbook, and it worked. (Shortly before the forty-year-old Atwater, an amateur blues musician from South Carolina, died of brain cancer in 1991, he is reported to have apologized for the Horton ad, and the racist flames it so triumphantly stoked.)

The most recent example comes in the 2004 presidential race between Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush. Kerry held a lead over Bush in the polls coming out of the conventions. Kerry made a big deal out of his record as a decorated soldier in Vietnam, and campaigned with his “band of brothers,” the term for his fellow Vietnam veterans. The contrast with Bush, who had ducked military combat in the Vietnam era, was expected to work to Kerry’s advantage. Then a shadowy independent group—Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—ran a series of TV ads asserting that Kerry was actually a coward who had betrayed his “brothers” while in Vietnam. The ads were bogus, and repudiated by the likes of Senator John McCain, but the issue became the hot topic of the campaign for weeks. The Kerry campaign was staggered by the charges and eventually lost a nail-biter in November. “For Republicans a swift boat was a very good thing,” columnist Robert Novak stated about the 2004 election. It “kept John Kerry from being president.”47

Defenders of negative TV political advertising acknowledge it has a seamy underside. Their response, however, is that the solution is to return fire with fire. “Responding to ads with ads,” Glenn Richardson writes, “is perhaps the most appropriate redress to distorted charges.”48 “Any ad from one candidate or party can always be countered with an ad by the opposing candidate or party,” Travis Ridout and Michael Franz state, adding that “This is a particular strength of television compared with other forms of campaigning.”49 “Advertising provides a visible and relatively effective way to respond to attacks,” another team of researchers led by Franz argues. “For every thirty-second distortion, there can be a thirty-second clarification; every accusation can be met, every charge responded to in an effective, efficient way.” They chastise John Kerry for failing to respond to the swift boat attack ads immediately and with full fire, much as others criticized Dukakis for failing to answer the Willie Horton charges in 1988.50

Franz and his colleagues, to their credit, acknowledge that the amount of money it would take to respond to attack ads has become more than a little daunting, but they appear reluctant to follow this through to what would be uncomfortable conclusions. It allows those with the most money to set the agenda for the campaign with bogus and/or irrelevant negative charges and forces the opponent to respond with their own gobs of money, or let the charges appear legitimate. Psychological research indicates that there is a great advantage to playing offense, not defense, and to be the first to levy charges against the opponent.51 By this logic, the offended party would be wise to shoot first and force the other candidate to respond to their negative ad blitz. “Even principled politicians are under enormous competitive pressure to succumb to a manipulative politics of unreason,” Bruce Ackerman writes. “After all, if your opponents will batter you with hot-button sound bites, it won’t do your principle much good if you lose the election. The only good defense is a sound-bite offense!”52

In our view, that is more than a minor drawback to an otherwise functional democratic election system. It is absurd, and disastrous. It is eerily close to embracing the “mutual assured destruction” of nuclear war games. It is American electoral politics.

And, tragically, that is not the worst aspect of negative political advertising.

What is most striking about negative television political advertising is that it accentuates the tendency toward depoliticization. It extends and enhances the problem of citizen apathy that is a recurring problem in an inegalitarian society and aggravated in a society with a fixed two-party system. It logically follows from the clear purpose of negative advertising: to turn prospective voters off from the candidates they are most likely to support. Depoliticization is an eminently rational, if ultimately self-defeating, response to the asininity of a political universe where negative political advertising is the lingua franca. The trailblazing experimental research of Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar has been invaluable in this regard. They demonstrate that the main consequence of negative ads is that it demobilizes citizens and turns them off from electoral politics, if not public and civic life altogether. As Ansolabehere and Iyengar put it, “the demobilizing impact of negative advertising has been a well-kept secret, and a tacit assumption among political consultants.” The trend is toward “a political implosion of apathy and withdrawal.”53 Even those scholars who otherwise defend TV political advertising acknowledge that the research establishes that “exposure to negativity is likely to increase cynicism, especially among nonpartisans.”54

Commercial Broadcasting

It is time to complete the discussion of political advertising by introducing a cornerstone of the money-and-media election complex, and the main immediate beneficiary of political adverting: the commercial broadcasting industry. As we mentioned above, political advertising as it is known in the United States would be impossible without a commercial TV system that benefits from and encourages paid candidate advertising. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s TV candidate advertising constituted an almost imperceptible part of total TV advertising revenues. By the early 1990s the figure nudged up to around 2 percent—the National Association of Broadcasters put it at 1.2 percent for 199655—and a decade later TV political advertising was between 5 and 8 percent of total TV ad revenues. In 2012, political advertising will account for over 20 percent of TV station ad revenues.56 As New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley put it, election campaigns “function as collection agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations.”57

In short, political advertising has become a staple of the commercial broadcasting industry, and a foundation for its profitability. It is a dream business as it requires little or no sales force to shake the tree and the money is paid in advance. Wall Street stock analysts can barely contain themselves as they envision the growing cash flow. “Voters are going to be inundated with more campaign advertising than ever,” one investor service wrote in 2011. “While this may fray the already frazzled nerves of the American people, it is great news for media companies.”58 “No one loves a good political brawl like a U.S. broadcast company. The fiercer the fight, the more money broadcasters can expect from campaign advertising—particularly in an era when political rhetoric grows more heated every day,” Moody’s Investors Service wrote in a special 2011 report touting media stocks as a good buy. “There are good political years, and then there are years like 2012, when speculative-grade, pure-play television broadcasters expect an unprecedented frenzy of political advertising amid an intense battle for control of both the White House and a closely divided Congress.”59 As Carl Salas of Moody’s put it, “Virtually all U.S. broadcasters will benefit from spending on political ads in 2012.”60

The matter was probably put best by Eric Greenberg, a partner of Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker LLP, who regularly represents broadcasters in the buying and selling of television stations. A twenty-year veteran industry insider, Greenberg is blunt about the business model of commercial television: “Political advertising and elections are to TV what Christmas is to retail.” He anticipates that due to political advertising being so “huge,” there will likely be another wave of mergers and acquisitions among TV stations.61

This will drive ever further the trend toward industry consolidation that began in earnest in the 1980s. In addition to the increase in the percentage of TV ad revenues coming from political advertising, the number of media firms receiving the lion’s share of this bounty has shrunk considerably due to the massive wave of media consolidation over the past three decades.

This is of particular importance because these media firms form a very powerful lobby in Washington to protect their interests, and the larger they get, the more politically powerful they become. The corporate media giants, spearheaded by the trade association the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), have determined that nothing can be done to tamper with the golden spigot of TV political advertising. By the mid–1990s there was a concerted effort to require commercial broadcasters to provide free time to candidates so as to de-emphasize the role of big money in corrupting the election system. Legislation was introduced and public interest groups formed to organize on behalf of free airtime. This effort had widespread popular support, and no known popular opposition that was unaffiliated with the money-and-media election complex.

Free airtime for candidates was a reasonable and modest demand; the commercial broadcasters received their monopoly licenses and rights to the scarce air channels at no charge in return for serving the public interest. The pertinent law assumes that these are firms that must go beyond just maximizing their own profits to justify their getting these lucrative monopoly licenses over other prospective licensees. Those broadcasters that refused to make concessions to the public interest would see their monopoly licenses turned over to a different firm when the term expired. (That this was the case in the letter and spirit of the law, but not in the application of the law, attests to the power of the commercial broadcasting lobby over the years.)62 In legislation and rulings, both Congress and the Supreme Court explicitly stated that providing campaign coverage was a definitional component of the public service requirements for a broadcaster. The FCC even has a formal expectation that local broadcasters would cover state and local races, and until 1991 candidates in such races had an affirmative right of access, to the extent the race could be considered significant.63 As political advertising and the costs of campaigns mushroomed in the 1980s and ‘90s, the amount and quality of commercial television’s campaign coverage seemed woefully inadequate, and, on the whole, television’s contribution to electoral democracy was regarded by more than a few Americans as increasingly destructive.

By 1997 the matter reached its apogee as a viable public issue. President Bill Clinton came out publicly for free airtime with the formation of the Gore Commission. This was a body recommended by the FCC and appointed by the White House in 1997 to determine the public service obligations of commercial broadcasters in exchange for having received lucrative digital broadcasting spectrum for free—valued by some as worth as much as $70 billion—in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The President noted upon forming the Gore Commission that, although the move from analog to digital signals would give broadcasters “much more signal capacity than they have today,” broadcasters had “asked Congress to be given this new access to the public airwaves without charge”—an end result the President found inadequate: “I believe, therefore, it is time to update broadcasters’ public interest obligations to meet the demands of the new times and the new technological realities. I believe broadcasters who receive digital licenses should provide free air time for candidates, and I believe the FCC should act to require free air time for candidates.”64

The Federal Communications Commission Chair at the time, William Kennard, was a strong proponent of free airtime. No radical—he followed the FCC pattern and went on to become a multi-millionaire in a lucrative career as a wheeler-dealer in the telecommunication industry following his tenure—Kennard hoped that the Gore Commission would adhere to the President’s wishes. But with several commercial broadcasters among its members, the Gore Commission proved next to worthless. “At the end of the day,” Kennard said, “the broadcast industry was fundamentally unwilling to accept any requirements that they broadcast more public interest programming.” “When President Clinton asked that broadcasters set aside free television time for candidates,” the columnist Jeff Cohen wrote at the time, the “NAB reacted with the indignation one might expect from the National Rifle Association if the president had proposed banning not only assault weapons, but hunting rifles, handguns and toy guns.”65 Kennard understood the core problem. “The Gore Commission report came after the spectrum had been given away. And so the leverage was lost.”

Although Clinton let the matter drop, Kennard persisted in his efforts to get free airtime for political candidates. He knew from getting out on the road that the idea was popular everywhere, across the political spectrum. “I’d go out to talk to groups, grassroots groups, and I’d say, ‘Well, what about breaking some of this dependency of politicians on money by requiring broadcasters to give away some of their time for free?’, and people would say ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea,’ and we’d talk about how to do it.” He quickly learned that popular sentiment notwithstanding, the range of discussion was far narrower in Washington. “You say the same thing at a cocktail party in Washington and people would look at you like you were crazy.”

Congress hardly made things better. In fact, when Kennard broached the idea of free airtime for candidates, key members of Congress made it clear that Kennard should drop the matter or risk seeing the FCC’s budget cut severely. “The job has been made much harder because of the influence of money in politics.” Kennard explained what happened behind the scenes: “When I first started talking to people about free air time for political candidates, some of my oldest and closest friends in Washington took me to breakfast, and they said, ‘Bill, don’t do this, it’s political suicide, you know. You’re just going to kill yourself.’ And, you know, they were right. I thought it was so sad that we have so distorted the concept of what it means to be a public trustee that you can’t even talk about these issues as an independent regulator without people castigating you. It’s really sort of outrageous.”66

No regulator or politician close to the levers of power has dared to expend political capital advancing Kennard’s cause subsequently—the issue has been all but abandoned since 2000, even by staunch progressives on the FCC like Michael Copps. The corporate media lobby has only grown in strength, if that is possible. The corporate media giants lobby on many issues and many fronts, but when it comes to protecting unlimited TV political advertising, and unlimited campaign spending, their relationship to any reform effort is, as Jeff Cohen observed, comparable to the National Rifle Association’s relationship to movements for gun control. They control the board in Washington.

The corruption goes far beyond the flexing of lobbying muscle. Perhaps coincidentally, precisely as political advertising arrived as manna from heaven for commercial broadcasters, they began to lessen or even discontinue the manners in which they had covered political campaigns previously. The average number of free presidential messages fifteen minutes or longer that broadcasters gave to candidates, for example, fell from sixty in 1952 to twenty in 1972 to five in 1988 and, as far as we can tell, zero thereafter.67 Party convention coverage has shrunk; what were once often major civics lessons for Americans from the 1950s through the ‘70s have become mindless scripted events. Candidate debates are less frequently presented now on commercial television, and commercial stations increasingly do not even carry debates except for three presidential and one vice-presidential debates.68

Consider the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin. Incumbent Russ Feingold offered to debate his millionaire opponent in forums across the state, but Republican Ron Johnson, who had no record in public life and who even avoided interviews with newspaper editorial boards, refused. Instead, Johnson let his advertisements and those paid for by the Chamber of Commerce, American Action Network, and sundry organizations that flooded the state with anti-Feingold ads do his talking. Even when Johnson did participate in the three traditional candidate debates available for broadcast by the state’s TV stations, some stations avoided airing them in prime time. These same stations were broadcasting Johnson ads around the clock, including during the period in which the debate was taking place. Wisconsin lawyer Ed Garvey, a former Democratic nominee for governor, tried to tune in to a much-anticipated Feingold-Johnson debate, only to find it was not being aired. He called the station and was told he could track it down on a website. “As a citizen, I was left with no option but the ads. I got nothing of substance from television stations,” griped Garvey. “I thought they were supposed to operate in the public interest.”69

Most ominously, the amount of news coverage of political campaigns on commercial television, never much to write home about, has fallen precipitously over the past three decades.70 Thomas Patterson notes that the amount of network TV news coverage of campaigns plummeted from 1992 to 2000 alone.71 The average commercial television station provides far more political advertising during a political campaign than it does news coverage of the campaigns. This is not only true when one looks at the broadcast day as a whole, but it is even true when one looks strictly at TV news programs. In a hotly contested U.S. Senate primary race in New Jersey in 2000, $21 million was spent on TV ads, but the stations receiving the ads averaged thirteen seconds per day in news time on the race.72 One study showed that in states with competitive Senate races in 2004, there were four times as many hours given to ads for the race than there was news coverage of the races. Another study of the 2006 election found a similar pattern.73 “Local television news in most communities is unashamedly show business, not journalism,” communication scholar Michael Schudson wrote in 1995, “and devotes only the slightest amount of airtime to local electoral candidates and issues.”74 A study of eleven local media markets in 2004 determined that only eight percent of the 4,333 news broadcasts in the month preceding the election had even mentioned a single local race. The same newscasts had eight times as many stories about accidental injuries than they did local races during this month.75

It applies to all races, regardless of their importance. Researcher Barbara Osborn studied local TV news coverage of the last weeks of the 1997 Los Angeles municipal election, including a mayoral race. She found very little coverage on the 11 PM newscasts on network-owned stations; for every minute of election news, there were more than three minutes of election ads. In the second from last week of the campaign, KCBS’s 11 PM newscast did not devote even a second to the election, but did find time for a report on skateboarding dogs and another report on Easter egg-hunting chimpanzees.76

It has gotten to where the pathetic and appalling state of broadcast campaign coverage no longer requires academic research to be established; it is on a par with stating that people no longer tend to use the telegraph to communicate. One acquaintance we know who was running for governor of a Midwest state as a Democrat in a general election complained to a TV station manager that his campaign was not getting any news coverage. “You want to get on the air?” the broadcaster replied. “Buy an ad.” Whether intentional or not, commercial broadcasters have little incentive to give away for free what has become a major profit center for them.

Increasingly what has happened is that what remains of TV news coverage of campaigns uses political ads as the basis of news stories. By this we do not mean that TV news reporters and pundits rigorously fact check the ads their stations run and expose the flaws in the ads, any more than the stations’ news divisions examine the claims of their commercial advertisers and expose their deceptive practices. (One of the studies mentioned above determined that less than 1 percent of TV news campaign stories critique any political advertising.) To the contrary, TV news increasingly publicizes TV ads, especially controversial ones, and assesses how much political impact the ads are having as the basis of their political journalism. It is a cheap and easy way to cover politics, reaffirms that the Commercial is King, and reminds candidates that the path to news coverage goes through the ad sales department. Indeed, each of the examples of negative presidential ads in the last section—from Willie Horton to swift boats—gained far more attention from the TV news coverage of the matter than from the ads themselves. It is now part of the strategy in the money-and-media election complex to use ads strategically to drive or shift news coverage.

The discussion in this chapter leads to two questions. First, why does television get the preponderance of political advertising in an era when people are spending more and more time online? “Online is how you preach to the converted,” Goldstein explains. “TV is how you reach the undecided, the passive viewers of politics.”77 “When it comes to political advertising,” AdWeek writes, “digital is still just a sideshow.” As Eli Pariser puts it, with regard to the Internet, “the state of the art in political advertising is half a decade behind the state of the art in commercial advertising.”78 Goldstein says one of digital’s main functions at present is for “fundraising so that a lot of money can be spent on TV.”79 At some point, however, the audience for television almost certainly will decline sufficiently that the money will begin to flow in different directions. Whether this will lead to a weakening of the money-and-media election complex, or, as with commercial advertising, the money will simply flood whatever new arena emerges, possibly in a more insidious manner, is another matter altogether.

Second, nearly every scholarly treatment of political advertising acknowledges many or most of the defects we highlight in this article; indeed, we draw much of our critique from this research. Many of these scholars, however, are sanguine about political advertising’s role in American democracy. Their defense of political advertising invariably assumes there will be a credible political journalism—a viable Fourth Estate if you will—that will provide an effective counterbalance to political advertising, if not provide the preponderance of political information to the citizenry. This article has demonstrated the record of how television journalism has all but abandoned its duty to provide some sort of balance or corrective to political advertising. What little print or online media remain are more obsessed with pointless prognostication and assessing campaign spin than anything else. They are part of the problem, not the solution.

The U.S. electoral system is wallowing in a sea of money, idiocy, and corruption precisely at the moment the nation’s growing problems demand solutions that work to the benefit of the vast majority of Americans—the 99 percent—who have no role in the current regime except to be manipulated and exploited. This is going to be a defining political struggle going forward, until it is resolved.


  1. Meg James, “Cable television gaining in advertising revenues, but not political dollars,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2011,
  2. “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right,” Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” In many respects, this is the case with how Americans have come to regard TV political advertising as the natural form of political communication, and election campaigns appear unimaginable without them.
  3. Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum House, 1961), 312. See also W.J. Rorabaugh, The Real Making of the President (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009). Television plays a key role in this account, but TV campaign advertising itself plays a small role in comparison to what would soon follow.
  4. Joe Klein, Politics Lost (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 17.
  5. Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President (New York: Penguin, 1988), xv, xxi, xxii.
  6. There are numerous totals given the TV political spending in 1968. The standard figure immediately after the election was $60 million. See Malachi C. Topping and Lawrence W. Lichty, “Political Programs on National Television Networks: 1968,” Journal Of Broadcasting 15, no. 2 (Spring 1971): 161. After review we have elected to use the figure provided in the 1997 Congressional research report that drew from FCC research on the subject: Joseph E. Cantor, Denis Steven Rutkus, and Kevin B. Greely, “Free and Reduced-Rate Television Time for Political Candidates,” Report prepared for the Congressional Research Service, July 7, 1997, 4–5.
  7. Erika Franklin Fowler and Travis N. Ridout, “Advertising Trends in 2010,” The Forum 8, no. 4, article 4 (2011): 2–4. Also used data from research conducted by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Special thanks to Katherine Cramer Walsh and Sarah Niebler.
  8. Yes, Expect Record 2012 Political Spending,” Media Life, June 23, 2011,
  9. White, Ibid.
  10. Cited in Michael M. Franz, Paul B. Freedman, Kenneth M. Goldstein, and Travis N. Ridout, Campaign Advertising and American Democracy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 3.
  11. From “David Ogilvy’s Timeless Rules for Advertising and Marketing,” March 26, 2010,
  12. Robert Spero, The Duping of the American Voter (New York: Lippincott & Crowell, 1980), 4.
  13. Cited in Glenn W. Richardson, Jr., Pulp Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 125.
  14. Thorstein Veblen, arguably the most original and greatest American economist of all time, was the first to grasp this fundamental change in capitalism, though many of course have followed in his wake. See Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1964).
  15. See John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna, “Monopoly and Competition in Twenty-First Century Capitalism,” Monthly Review 62, no. 11 (April 2011): 1–39.
  16. C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 89–90.
  17. V.O. Key, Jr., Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1955), chapter nineteen.
  18. One of us was told this story by a former advertising professional at Reeves’s Ted Bates advertising agency. For somewhat different versions of the story see Reed Hundt, “The Children’s Emmy: An Award Worth Winning,” November 19, 1996,; and Richard S. Tedlow, The Watson Dynasty (New York: HarperBusiness, 2003), 118.
  19. Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers (New York: William Morrow, 1984), 173.
  20. William Greider, Who Will Tell the People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 271. Greider, to his credit, is one of the few writers on this subject who made the strong link between political and commercial advertising.
  21. Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 159.
  22. Darrell M. West, Air Wars (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010), 89. For a smart examination of the importance of visuals for TV news coverage of election campaigns, see Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Erik Page Bucy, Image Bite Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  23. For a fuller elaboration on these themes, see Hannah Holleman, Inger L. Stole, John Bellamy Foster, and Robert W. McChesney, “The Sales Effort and Monopoly Capital,” Monthly Review 60, no. 11 (April 2009): 1–23.
  24. Drew Weston, The Political Brain (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2007).
  25. See Shanto Iyengar and Jennifer A. McGrady, Media Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), chapter six.
  26. Ted Brader, Campaigning for Hearts and Minds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 183.
  27. Daniel Slocum Hinerfeld, “How political ads subtract; it’s not the negative ads that are perverting democracy. It’s the deceptive ones,” Washington Monthly, May 1990, 12–22.
  28. Greider, 274–76.
  29. W. Lance Bennett, The Governing Crisis, second edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 151.
  30. Ezra Klein, “Rick Perry Loves Science. Political Science,” Washington Post blog, September 16, 2011, See also Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber, Get Out the Voter, second edition (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), 161.
  31. Quotation from Pariser, 160.
  32. Leonard Steinhorn, “The Selling of the President in a Converged Media Age,” in James A. Thurber and Candace J. Nelson, eds., Campaigns and Elections American Style (Boulder: Westview, 2010), 154.
  33. Matthew Creamer, “Obama Wins!…Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year,” Advertising Age, October 17, 2008,
  34. Travis N. Ridout and Michael M. Franz, The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), viii, 146, 149, 145.
  35. Kaste Kenski, Bruce Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, The Obama Victory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 267, 268, 284.
  36. Julian Brookes, “Why the 2012 Election Will Be the Most Expensive Ever,” Rolling Stone blogs, June 7, 2011,
  37. West, 174.
  38. Mike Madden, “A small group of savvy political operatives will control how billions will be spent in next year’s election,” AdWeek, June 27, 2011,
  39. John G. Geer, In Defense of Negativity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 36.
  40. Wisconsin Advertising Project, Ibid.
  41. Fowler and Ridout, 11–13.
  42. See David Mark, Going Dirty (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
  43. Westen, 435–36.
  44. West, 3.
  45. Bernard Weinraub, “Campaign Trail: A Beloved Mug Shot For the Bush Forces,” New York Times, October 3, 1988.
  46. One of us had a relative, who was a political junkie and an avid right-wing Republican. He defended the Horton ads as not being racist by stating: “Hell, no one even knew Horton was a god-damned [insert n-word here] until the Democrats made such a stink about it.”
  47. Cited in Ridout and Franz, 2.
  48. Richardson, Jr., 138.
  49. Ridout and Franz, 17.
  50. Franz, et. al., 142.
  51. Westen, 346.
  52. Bruce Ackerman, The Decline and Fall of the American Republic (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), 126.
  53. Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, Going Negative (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 11–12.
  54. Fowler and Ridout, 4.
  55. Cantor, Rutkus, and Greely, 6.
  56. Andrew Vanacore, “Political Ads Called ‘Gigantic Band-Aid’ for TV Stations’ Bottom Lines,” Associated Press dispatch, October 29, 2010,
  57. Jeff Cohen, “TV Industry Wields Power in D.C.,” Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1997.
  58. Time is Right to Buy Media Stocks Like TWX, DIS, NWS, CMCSA,” InvestorPlace, June 20, 2011,
  59. Moody’s Investors Service, “US Broadcasters Get Ready for Record-Breaking Political Ad Spending in 2012,” June 21, 2011,, 2.
  60. Catalina Camia, “TV Stations Set to Make Money from 2012 Political Ads,” USA Today, June 22, 2011.
  61. Anthony Noto, “For Media M&A, Christmas Comes Early,” Mergers & Acquisitions, July 13, 2011,
  62. Some indication of the power of commercial broadcasting lobby is that since 1934 there have been well over 100,000 license renewals but only four times has a broadcaster had its renewal denied because it failed to meet its public interest programming obligation. The odds are less than 4/1,000 of 1 percent that a broadcaster might lose its license. In short, it is a hollow threat, and broadcasters know they can do exactly as they please to maximize returns. See Steven Waldman and the Working Group on Information Needs of Communities, The Information Needs of Communities (Washington, DC: Federal Communications Commission, June 2011), 26.
  63. Waldman, et. al., 295–96.
  64. Cantor, Rutkus, and Greely, 21.
  65. Cohen, Ibid.
  66. Robert W. McChesney interview with William Kennard, February 2001.
  67. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dirty Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 279.
  68. Martin Kaplan, Ken Goldstein, and Matthew Hale, “Local News Coverage of the 2004 Campaigns,” Lear Center Local News Archive, February 15, 2005, 19–20, Moreover, control over the presidential debates have been taken away from the League of Women Voters by the two major parties and their capacity to work for citizens rather than politicians has been lessened accordingly. See Geogre Farah, No Debate (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004).
  69. John Nichols interview with Ed Garvey, November 2010.
  70. Classic research includes: Daniel Hallin, “Sound Bite News: Television News Coverage of Elections, 1968–88,” Journal of Communication 42, no. 2 (1992): 5–24; Erik P. Bucy and Maria Elizabeth Grabe, “Taking Television Seriously: A Sound and Image Bite Analysis of Presidential Campaign Coverage, 1992–2004,” Journal of Communication 57, no. 4 (2007): 652–75; Kaplan, Goldstein, and Hale, Ibid.
  71. Thomas E. Patterson, The Vanishing Voter (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 90.
  72. Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, The News About the News (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 171.
  73. Waldman, et. al., 84–85.
  74. Michael Schudson, The Power of News (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 215.
  75. Waldman, et. al., Ibid.
  76. Barbara Bliss Osborn, “Election Neglected on L.A.s Local TV,” Extra!, July/August 1997.
  77. Yes, Expect Record 2012 Political Spending,” Ibid.
  78. Pariser, 154.
  79. Katy Bachman, “Digital Losing Out on Campaign Ad Billions,” AdWeek, June 22, 2011.
2012, Volume 63, Issue 11 (April)
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