Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Can You Really Buy An Election?

I’ve been pondering all of the corporate money flooding this election: the direct donations from outfits like Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp to the Republican Governor’s Assn., the corporate donations to groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the corporate PACs, and the bazillionaire self-financed candidates. And then there are the ads from liberal groups: the Democratic campaign committees, unions, and the like. Most of the donations are going to Republican candidates, and while Democratic groups are certainly spending money -- and asking for it, lord God almighty how they are asking -- the GOP has been outspending Democrats significantly.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. For one thing, I have to wonder if these corporate donations are the best use of those millions. Is it really worthwhile, spending all of that money trying to get Republicans elected? Funneling all that cash to the GOP via PAC donations and Chamber donations and “grants” to corporate front groups like the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation? Really? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just deal with whatever regulation it is the Democrats supposedly want, or increase the fuel economy on the car you’re manufacturing (and which the American public wants too, I might add)? Is it really a good return on investment to spend tens of millions every two years trying to swing an election?

The general assumption is that they wouldn’t be spending this kind of money if they didn’t think it worthwhile, but let’s face it: American corporations do all sorts of crazy, stupid shit. New Gap logo, anyone?

(And here's another thought: if the majority of Americans really believed in Free Market Fairies and the tyranny of Big Government and the dangers of the deficit, would they really need to spend so much money selling us these ideas?)

Maybe it was a smart expenditure before the good ol’ days of Citizens United, when we weren’t talking about so many zeroes on every campaign donation and every Karl Rove and Karl Rove wannabe didn’t have his or her hand out demanding money for this or that organization, PAC, think tank, foundation, etc. I mean, seriously. Wouldn’t you people rather be expanding your factories and hiring people with that money or something? Or giving yourselves fat bonuses?

Just wondering.

Here’s something else. It’s looking like $2 billion will be spent on campaigns this election, a record for a midterm election. We’ve all been griping about the money coming from foreign sources but nobody ever finishes the sentence: no one stops to think where this money is going. The vast majority of it is going to buy television air time.

Elections are a media cash cow, from the ad agencies making the buys to the cable, network and local television stations cashing the checks. Where is all of this Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads money going? Straight to Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and the rest.

Well no wonder campaign finance reform and public financing of elections never got off the ground. No wonder our news information sucks. Who stands to benefit from an undecided voting public, an electoral horse race in every district, hotly contested primaries orchestrated by a media-created Tea Party "movement"? I mean, think about it.

Since I started writing this post this morning I have received seven solicitations for political donations and one phone call. Swear to God. Here’s one from the DCCC:
There are just hours left before our most critical deadline of the election. The amount of money in the bank tonight determines tomorrow's television spending -- this is the FINAL time we can make adjustments to our ad buy for the final week.

Enough already, people. I have just one question for the DCCC, Organizing For America, the Chamber of Commerce, and everyone else with skin in this game: do TV ads even work anymore? Other than getting a candidate’s name and image out there, of course, but does anyone think they will sway a voter’s opinion on a candidate?

For years we’ve been hearing that product marketers are getting away from traditional ad buys to things like “guerilla marketing” and “branding.” Consumers have been assaulted with advertising for decades and I think we’re all savvy enough to assume the information in a television ad is going to be bullshit. Just because Tide says its detergent is the most fabulous thing out there doesn’t mean anyone believes it. Why would anyone think we believe political campaign ads?

Here’s what’s interesting to me: there are thousands of people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim of Kenyan birth. I don’t recall seeing one television ad telling people that information, yet somehow it managed to spread around the country anyway.


I’m not the only one questioning the dubious effectiveness of all this campaign advertising. As I was wondering these things I happened across this post over at Gin And Tacos which pretty much articulates my own thoughts on the subject. Ed writes:

Accordingly, asking whether money matters is essentially asking if advertising matters. Much like money, advertising has a threshold beyond which its marginal effects are indistinguishable from zero. There are different schools of thought on this issue, but my personal bias favors the argument that the threshold is very, very low. Advertising is good for name recognition and not much else. As you sit through the barrage of TV commercials for this year's candidates, ask yourself who is actually persuaded by any of this crap. Individuals' own preferences and partisan predispositions are an effective screen; in other words, any message from the opposite party is heavily discounted if not ignored altogether. If you're a Republican, you're going to tell yourself that anything in the Democrats' commercials is untrue and untrustworthy anyway.

Naturally, Republican ads are discounted by Democratic voters, and please show me the independent/undecided voter who is actually swayed by a campaign ad featuring the Scary Voiced Announcer Dude and Soaring Chorus when Candidate X appears on screen?

The only people campaign advertising makes a difference to is the people selling the air time. And it makes a huge difference to them. It will continue to make a difference to them until the candidates and campaigns themselves decide TV advertising isn’t effective. When that happens, the local and national networks will have a huge sad. Maybe as big of a sad as the one we’ll see by the RSCC, RCCC, DSCC, DCCC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and every other group with their hand out seeking donations for ad buys that we could all do without.

Then and only then will this highway robbery come to an end and maybe we can have some sane political campaigns.