Analysis: Political Ads Must Be Fact-Checked

If a toothpaste company were to claim its product was the No. 1 cavity fighter in a 30-second TV spot, the broadcast censors from every station and network would demand reams of quantifiable proof and substantiation before the commercial hit the airwaves. If the same company slipped through the broadcasting cracks and aired a spot that claimed a competitor’s toothpaste actually caused cavities, without meeting the required burden of proof, all hell would break loose. The Federal Communication Commission would eviscerate the broadcaster for airing the spot, and the Federal Trade Commission would take the manufacturer, and potentially the advertising agency, to task for misleading the American people. And if the FCC found the broadcaster not to have done its job as a government licensee of the airwaves, it would lay out hefty fines against it for each and every claim that couldn’t be proven. There could be congressional hearings and lawsuits and various forms of outrage by politicians on behalf of the public. Advertising regulations are for the most part stringent, as they should and must be, so that trusting, truth-seeking consumers are not misled.

Political advertising is the only safe haven for a candidate to lie about him/herself or his/her competition and get away with it. Instead of having to prove its political ad to be true, the advertiser simply needs it not to be proven false easily. And there’s no real risk of that, as the network censors, the FCC and congressional oversight committees most often sit the ad dance out when it comes to a political ad’s actual factual content. The decision to air is left to the individual broadcasters, which make tens of millions of dollars each presidential election campaign cycle from ad revenues. Often sheepishly hiding behind a bastardized notion of freedom of speech, some agencies and broadcasters conveniently forget the importance of truth in advertising.

 For reasons unbeknownst to this marketer of 22 years, broadcasters and the government cast an ethically, morally and legally blind eye to the most important element political advertising-its truthfulness. Two government bodies in particular, the FCC and the Federal Elections Commission, have regulations in place regarding airwave access and the cost of ad buys and how much can be spent and when and how and by whom, but seem much less concerned by the actual content of the advertising. If the now-infamous Swift Boat Veterans ads were held to the same standards as non-political advertising that must answer to the FCC and FTC, they never would have seen the light of day or nighttime television. The ads simply would not have come close to the burden-of-truth proof required by the networks and government. And because it is well aware of the regulations, the ad agency wouldn’t have even dared to try it.

So, what happens when the networks and the government hit the snooze button during political campaigns? Unethical politicians, their spin doctors and so-called “concerned citizen” groups invest in media-driven propaganda. Rather than worry about the high bar of proof they must hurdle, political advertisers simply need to raise the funds necessary to pay the high costs of advertising and media, and make sure their fund generation and spending is within the legal constraints placed on such advertising. Leaving the burden of truth to their clients, a small percentage of ad agencies profit greatly from creating misinformation. (“The client told me to say it” is right up there with “The devil made me do it,” but it is unfortunately a time-honored excuse to skirt ethical and moral responsibility.) Media agencies love election years, as the rates for ad time go up as demand rises. I asked one of my media colleagues what it was like during an election year. Her reply? “Christmas.” As long as the ad industry and the networks make money and we know that the government (the FCC) won’t slap our hands, some industry members think it’s OK.

In a June 27 New York Times op-ed piece titled “You Brain Lies to You,” Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt explain how the human brain stores information. More specifically, they brilliantly detail how your brain can believe lies even when it actually knows the truth. They write: “This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.”

This article, as well as a myriad of widely accepted studies, have proven that the more often a person is told a lie, the better the chances it will be accepted as truth, even when the truth is known. Herein lies the quintessential danger of false political advertising. Without regulation, it is possible that the American people can be completely misled, believing not the truth but the lie. Certainly, this endangers the most sacred right we share as Americans — that of liberty (defined by Wikipedia as “the freedom to act or believe without being stopped by unnecessary force.”)

In this day and age, it’s disconcerting at best that a candidate’s endorsement of an ad seems to be enough advocacy for the broadcasters and the government. “I’m Chris Candidate, and I approved of this ad” was considered a breakthrough addition to political advertising, yet falls well short of what is truly necessary. Certainly, “I’m Chris Candidate, and I give you my word that this ad is truthful” would be closer to what should be required. Immediate retractions when an advertisement is proven false would put even more candidate skin in the game and most likely deliver more honesty to the audience. In the case of ads produced by political action groups, which deliver no more than an ambiguous “Concerned Citizens for Change” type of tagline, what ramifications are there if they lie? There is little to no recourse, which opens the floodgates to even more clandestine deceptive advertising. At risk of stating what should be obvious, the best solution to the egregious problem of lying in political advertising is the complete factual vetting of any and all political commercials before they are aired. In short, the American people deserve to see and hear the truth, so they don’t fall victim to believing the lie.

At present, the FCC leaves the truth vetting of commercials up to individual broadcasters, and is not responsible for checking the messages created by the advertisers. If enough complaints are filed, the broadcaster, using its discretion, should determine the fate of the ad. If the FCC feels the broadcaster has been remiss in its responsibility to act in the “interest, convenience and necessity” of the public as ordered by the FCC, then the FCC can take action if it so chooses. Imagine the comparison in consumer products. If the broadcast censors missed a deception about the cavity-fighting powers of toothpaste, the FTC and FCC would be swift and certain in their actions, running the offending manufacturer off the airwaves at spear point. Not so in political advertising. Consumers need to complain first before the facts need to be checked, and then it still might fall on deaf ears.

Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels demonstrated long ago the power of political propaganda. The more often you communicate a message to a population, truthful or not, the more they will believe it. As marketing experts, we get paid to motivate consumers to engage the products and services we represent. If we convince them of something that isn’t truthful, we are misleading with the intent to unethically and unfairly persuade.

Unfortunately for our industry, we are not self-regulated like the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association. An agency can’t lose its license to practice, because no group in the industry has that kind of power. The American Association of Advertising Agencies (the 4A’s), the most noteworthy of advertising professional groups, cannot censure ad agencies that propagate inaccuracies, half-truths or outright lies. The mission of the National Advertising Review Council (NARC), headed by FTC alum C. Lee Peeler, is “to foster truth and accuracy in national advertising through voluntary self regulation.” Whereas such a stance is a great one for those with ethics, it is powerless against those who want to mislead. None of the dozens of professional advertising groups can impeach an agency or close its doors for knowingly spreading information it knows is misleading, inaccurate or deceiving. Instead, our industry leaves it up to the broadcasters and government to baby-sit our professional behavior.

Political advertising is the most important and persuasive weapon in a presidential campaign’s arsenal. Candidates, national committees and a variety of groups spend the vast majority of their war-chest wealth — hundreds of millions of dollars — on TV, radio, Internet and print advertising. Allowing political advertising to proceed without even an eye batted by the advertising community, networks or government leads us freefalling down a treacherous abyss that will become even more disastrous over time. The ethical and moral corruption of a segment in the industry that cares for profit over ethos, networks that see dollar signs over accuracy, and a government that seemingly couldn’t care less until there is public outrage are changing the face of our elections. For our nation’s sake, we must force our politicians and their advertisers to become, once and for all, politically correct.

In advertising, you have to tell the truth about consumer products and services or pay the expensive and often disastrous consequences. It seems only fair that those running for the highest office in the free world be held to the same standards as a tube of toothpaste.

Sarah O’Leary is a 22-year marketing veteran and author of the forthcoming book Brandwashed: What’s Wrong with Marketing and How We Can Fix It.