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.

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