Jan 17

The lawlessness of political advertising

Television setEvery election year, I am re-amazed by one of the more amazing things I learned in my advertising life.

That is, there is one set of rules for consumer ads and no set of rules for political ads.

Want to run a TV ad for your toilet cleanser? It will have to be cleared by the network’s “ethics and standards” group. No false or misleading claims allowed about your product or your competitor’s.

Want to run a TV commercial for your political candidate? No lawmen here, so have at it. Lies, half-truths and conspiracy theories are welcome.

While the networks act as a watchdog for consumer advertising, the Federal Trade Commission actually brings action against violators. They have a nice little set of punishments, including cease-and-desist orders, fines, frozen assets and compensation for those affected by fraud.

On their website, the FTC says,“The FTC looks especially closely at advertising claims that can affect consumers’ health or their pocketbooks.”

Hmm. It’s not like a presidential candidate can affect our health or pocketbook, right?

So, naively, I have to ask: why in the world should a candidate for president not be required to be at least as honest as the maker of toilet cleanser? Especially when he or she may have the power to change the course of history?

If there ever was a time when smarter laws weren’t critical, that time has long passed. Today, the distinction between fantasy and reality is blurred by the combination of bitter partisan politics, fake news and the power of the internet.

It’s a disgrace that candidates for public office, whose duty it is to serve the people, are allowed to mislead the people.

Okay, I had to get that off my chest. But trust me, I’m enough of a realist to understand that the regulations governing political advertising will likely never change.

It is for this very reason that I retreat into my fantasy world, where I have just been named Benevolent Dictator of the US. During my first day in office, I promise to sign two simple executive orders re: the marketing of political candidates.

• No ads containing false or misleading claims allowed, period. Large fines for every violation.
• All candidates are now legally responsible for every promise — in ads, interviews or campaign speeches. If elected, broken and/or unfulfilled promises will be treated as crimes.

The second is arguably more important than the first, because promises aren’t lies — but they’re every bit as despicable if a candidate has no intention of delivering. The prospect of a prison term would be excellent motivation for candidates to think long and hard about what they promise.

For the record, this rant isn’t inspired only by Donald Trump. Every candidate engages in some degree of distortion. Lies and half-truths have become part of the campaigns for virtually every office in the land.

Personally, I’m ready to put our recent election behind us and move on. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make elections more fair in the future, and make it easier for people to make an intelligent choice.

Doing so would be an extraordinary gift to the next generation — and to the very idea of democracy itself.

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  • J.C. Webber III

    If only you had the power….

  • FalKirk

    I am a big fan of this author and this site, but this time, he has, with the best of intentions, gone done the wrong path. Yes, like him, I am disgusted by the half-truths and outright lies told by politicians. But as it turns out, the only thing more dangerous than those half-truths and lies, is someone — in government — telling us what is true and what is not.

    The “wild west” of free speech is frustrating, but history has made it abundantly clear that it is far preferable to having government determine what is, and what is not truth. Censorship, even for the best of reasons, is still censorship and is still dangerous.

    “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” ~ John F. Kennedy

    “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” ~ Louis D. Brandeis

    “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” ~ William O. Douglas

  • SDR97

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Who watches the watchers? Who gets to decide what is a fact and what isn’t? Better to let them hash it out and let the people decide.

  • Nameless Coward

    Ah yes. But why now? Huge swaths of people claiming to be tolerable except when things do not go their way. Poor losers indeed. Cry babies. Believing whatever they are fed. Cry check your facts. Cry Fake News. Yet never ever

    look into the other side to find out they’ve been had.

  • This could only work if what is false or misleading could be easily determined without controversy, but in chaotic contexts it is not.
    It is easy to say if your toilet cleaner does what you say it does, it is impossibile to say if high taxes is a good or bad thing, it’s an opinion with controverse data supporting every claim and inherently impossible to prove.

  • MacServiceGuy

    awe man.. you were doing so good keeping it non partisan for so long… you even put both pictures at the top and then refused to mention them

    until you did… and then it was only trump.

    hillary’s lies and deceptions are equal to trump’s, and in some cases significantly more grandiose. and so there is no mistake about my motivation here, and to eliminate any thought that I’m a trump defender, I voted third party. There wasn’t a chance i was going to vote for either of those two train wrecks (feel free to troll me on how my vote was wasted, it’ll be ignored. wasted votes are those who voted for trump or hillary). I digress…

    wish you would have either left both names out, or included both. by including only trump (even with your passing reference to “all” candidates, of which hillary falls into that bucket) it’s clear where your politics lay. and that’s fine, but it only serves to dissuade people from the point you are making and entice them to argue about politics instead of ethics.

    the point was ethics, wasn’t it?

  • MacServiceGuy

    while i agree with your point , i’m not clear on how what Ken wrote would be tantamount to censorship. please clarify

  • FalKirk

    Anytime the government tells you what you can and can’t say, you are touching on censorship. The Supreme Court has carved out certain exceptions to free speech, but those exceptions are, and should be, carefully defined and extremely limited in nature.

    In this case, you’re asking the government to define what is true and what is false. Sounds easy, right? But nothing is more fundamental to freedom than each individual defining for themselves what is and what is not truth.

    Just think back over what was one “true” in the past. Were gays abnormal freaks of nature? True. Were Indians savages that needed to be suppressed? True. Was the enslavement of Negroes a part of God’s grand plan? True. Was the Catholic church the one and only church? True. Did the sun spin around the earth? True.

    History tells us that government doesn’t decide what’s true, they decide what’s good and convenient for the current government. And everything else is deemed heretical and in need of suppressing.

  • MacServiceGuy

    ok your point is generally correct – but the waters you are treading into mean the government could never tell anyone, at any time, that they were ever correct or incorrect.

    I’m a guy that believes in very limited government, sounds like you are too – so we’re probably on the same page in most regards.

    having said that – the truth is not up for grabs. either something is true or it isn’t. and Ken’s toilet cleaner analogy is apropos here…If a toilet cleaner company makes a claim in their advertising it’s either true or false (provably so either way). and fines and other negative actions are (and should be) taken against those who make false claims (with increasing degrees of severity depending on the nature of the claim)

    I don’t think for one second Ken is advocating for the censorship of politicians opinions. I think he’s advocating for the punishment of lies in advertising, which is what we already do to toilet cleaner companies, but not to politicians.

    I think you’ve got Ken’s point a little twisted.

  • MacServiceGuy

    you make a good point.

    however, there’s plenty of false claims that are provably false by politicians. for those clear violations they should be punished

  • FalKirk

    What’s a lie, MacServiceGuy? Doctors used to talk about the benefits of smoking tobacco. Nutritionists create food pyramids — that change and reverse themselves every decade or so. In the 1950’s we thought that gays could be “cured”. Some people still believe that today. People used to believe in spontaneous generation — that salamanders were created from fire and wood. There was a time when the government insisted that asbestos was not harmful. And so forth.

    No one has a monopoly on the truth. And it’s especially dangerous when someone with the the power to enforce their edits thinks they can and should tell us what is and what is not.

  • Of course there are, but if you put up a mechanism to punish false claim how will you control that the mechanism work only on provably claims and does not try to control opinions?
    To stop opinion manipulation by false claims in politics you create a true idea certificate that could be used to manipulate opinions with stronger effects.

    Perhaps It is better to avoid something like an idea certificate committee and let opposition to show liars.

  • I think you’re splitting hairs when you complain that I mention Trump by name but only vaguely refer to other. I thought the article was clear, my point being that politicians are permitted by law to lie but product makers are not.

    If it came across any other way, then that’s my bad.

    To be clear, though — I’m not complaining about the presidential election, I’m talking about all U.S. elections, right down to the local level. Present and past. I think it’s sad for democracy that people in general are accepting of the fact that “politicians lie.”

    By the way, I would never tell anyone they are wasting their vote. I believe everyone should vote for their preferred candidate, no matter how remote their chances of winning. It makes me ill when people say, “I like Candidate X the most, but he probably won’t win, so I’m voting for Candidate Y.” Kind of defeats the whole idea of voting. So all the more power to you for voting your conscience.

  • Yes, this is my point. Obviously every candidate should be allowed to state opinions about the way they would run the country, interact with the rest of the world, etc. This is how we judge a candidate’s values.

    But I’m talking about facts, not opinions. I believe the earth is round and I’d be concerned if a candidate was building an audience of conspiracy-theorists by claiming the earth is flat.

    Honestly, I don’t expect the laws on political marketing to change. That’s why I went on to fantasize about my ideal world, in which politicians were forced to be honest by law.

    Most important to me is actually the second part of my fantasy proposal, where we hold candidates responsible for their promises. Many votes are won by those promises, and we can normally see in black and white if they have violated a promise.

  • Absolutely, opinions are fine. That’s how we come to know the candidates. It’s just that candidates often bolster their opinions with claims that are refuted by mounds of evidence. This is where we get into the whole “fake news” phenomenon. The truth is, many people accept fake news are fact and vote accordingly. Do we just accept fake news (or fake facts) as part of the free and open exchange of ideas? It’s that silly idealist in me who wishes elections were decided candidates putting forth thoughtful opinions supported by real facts.

    But, as I said in a comment above, what disturbs me at least as much as lying is the broken promise. Candidates often make promises they know they cannot keep, simply because those promises win elections. And yes, candidates also make promises they genuinely believe they can fulfill, which is great. If politicians were held responsible for their promises, only the deceitful ones would suffer.

  • I do get that certain truths change over time. However, some truths come with undeniable evidence. I can state unequivocally that the earth is round.

    I also get the danger of censorship. Freedom of speech is one of our most sacred values. Yet I can’t yell “fire” in the movie theatre.

    I wrote this article to express my personal frustration that product makers cannot lie, but politicians can lie freely. (And do.) I’m not talking people having opinions — I’m talking about people telling provable lies.

    It’s particularly disturbing when one sees the videos of voters expressing opinions based on these lies. You know that their facts are flat-out wrong, but you have to respect their freedom to believe what they believe.

    Honestly, I don’t know what the solution is. All I could do is offer up my remedial fantasy.

    Any ideas? Or do we just learn to live with what we have, fake news and all?

  • FalKirk

    Ken, I love your stuff and I hope you will not view my comments as a criticism. I too am terribly frustrated by what I see in political ads. But I also see a danger, even if I am not always able to eloquently articulate my position.

    Take your example of the earth being round. First, there was a time when people — ordinary people and people in power — thought the exact opposite. And they denounced those “round earthers” as heretics and had the power to burn them at the stake.

    Second, there are people, even today, who vehemently deny that the earth is round. If they want to form a political party based upon that belief, they should be free to do so. It seems like madness, no? But the moment we go from persuasion to coercion is the moment we go from free speech to government censorship.

    Do I have any ideas? No, of course not. Like most critics I excel at destroying the creations of others without possessing the ability to make creations of my own. I will, however, suggest that there is a large body of literature based on the primacy of the marketplace of ideas and that is what I am loosely basing my argument upon.

    Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m glad to hear your idea and the ideas of others. But I wanted to raise the red flag of censorship because history has demonstrated that censorship tends to be a one-way street. Once we go down it, there’s no turning back.

    “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” ~ Milton Friedman

  • The problem is that distinction between facts and opinions often is a thin red line.
    Climate change is a fact but many think of it as an opinion and before becoming a fact it was an opinion waiting for data to confirm.
    So the committee controlling candidates will control a fact or an opinion?
    Opponents should inform against false claims, a committee would be only another point of disagreement at best, or it could be a censorship.

    In democracy electors should watch for keeping promises, no one else could do it. If electors don’t care it means promises weren’t important.