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Political Ads are designed to be vague, deceptive and to misinform the public: Part I

September 11, 2022

We are just under two months before the 2022 Elections, so get ready to be inundated with political deception, vague promises and lots of mud slinging, in the campaign ads that will be running through November 8.

Campaign advertising is detestable for numerous reasons. There is the obvious low hanging fruit, which is in the form of outright lies and deception. Then there are ads that use buzzwords and phrases like “the middle class”, “pro-life”, “health care access”, “family values”, and “fair wages.” These are generally meaningless terms that don’t provide voters with any clarity on where candidates stand. If a candidate says they will work towards medicare for all or work to win a minimum wage of $25 an hour, then you know where they stand. However, this rarely happens in political ads. 

The other thing about political ads is that they consume the bulk of the money candidates raise in their campaigns. This means, when you donate to a candidate, they will spend the bulk of whatever you donate on advertising bogus, misleading, deceptive or vague messages. During the 2020 Election, there was a total of $2.5 Billion spent on TV ads alone.

Now, candidates and campaign managers will often say that political ads are an essential way for people to get their name out. This is simply not true, and would be increasingly unnecessary, especially if the following were to happen. First, if journalist were to practice honest, investigative reporting, the public would have plenty of information to make a well informed decision on where candidates stand on critical issues. I have been tracking election coverage for the past 20 years in the Greater Grand Rapids news market, which means I have seen how awful and how little election coverage there is with local news outlets. 

In 2010, GRIID conducted a study of the Grand Rapids Press and compared their election coverage to their coverage of the art spectacle Artprize, which was happening at the same time. Here is a summary of our findings:

In 2004, we also conducted an election coverage study of the three Grand Rapids-based TV stations, looking at coverage for 30 days leading up to the November Election. The findings were astounding, especially considering it was a Presidential Election year. However, we noticed that local candidates/elections don’t get nearly enough coverage, not because they are not important, but because of what news agencies chose to focus on. We found that for the 30 days prior to the 2004 election, not one second of airtime was devoted to the 19 separate Kent County Commission races. During that same 30 day period, the three Grand Rapids-based TV stations aired 107 stories about a DC sniper. During that same election cycle, the WWE was in Grand Rapids at the Van Andel Arena, so we went down and interviewed people going in and asked them about why they liked professional wrestling, along with their thoughts about electoral politics, which you can watch here. 

Since the study we did in 2004, news rooms have continued to shrink, resulting in even worse election coverage.

Second, if candidates want to get people to support them, instead of hosting events that are highly scripted and managed, candidates should be centering the community, listening to the community, advocating with the community. Instead of asking for money to run misleading or vague political ads, how about candidates who are out raising money for families experiencing poverty, those that are struggling to afford rent, and those that are food insecure. This kind of a strategy does two things. First, it would provide economic relief to people who really need it. Second, it would provide candidates an opportunity to talk about making a livable wage, like $25 an hour, or how landlords and property management companies are exploiting tenants, or it could be an opportunity to talk about the unjust food system we have. Unfortunately, these types of strategies are not practiced, so we are left with the painfully realities of political ads for the next month. 

In Part II of this series, we will look at a current deceptive/attack ad, which is directed at a Congressional candidate. 

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