The Politics of Advertising

John O’Toole is a leading and urbane New York advertising executive who has just written a book titled “The Trouble with Advertising…” The title comes from his recurring experience with people coming up to him at social gatherings and saying, “The trouble with advertising…”

The content of the book is replete with a defense of well-done advertising and some mild, general criticisms of poorly done advertising. But what I found most interesting was O’Toole’s sharp objections to what passes for political advertising on television.

Mind you, O’Toole was a supporter of Richard Nixon in 1972 (later becoming disillusioned during Watergate) and worked for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. He is, one might safely assert, a member of the Establishment. Consequently, it is not only what he says that is important, it is also who is’ saying it. Perhaps the gross abuse of the television. media by political candidates and their pitch men is about to peak.

But, then, let O’Toole speak for himself. He writes: “…to employ formats, techniques and trappings of the television spot to lure viewers into a shallow substitute for a candidate’s presentation of his qualifications is a subtle form of deception demeaning to both the political process and advertising.”

O’Toole recalls that he has “debated this issue for a decade, on platforms, in print and on The Today Show, with the ‘media specialists’ hired by aspirants to public office. They continue to demand, ‘What’s the difference between selling a candidate and selling a product?’ If they don’t know—or, more important, if the candidates who hire them don’t know—then God help the Republic.”

He explains the difference. Products compete for market shares in the bid for buyers’ allegiances that goes on every day. By contrast, “political advertising is rooted in the reality of the single election in which one ‘product’ wins 100 percent of the market and the other is put out of business. And the stakes are so high that toward the end of the campaign the temptation to lie and mislead is overwhelming. Why not? If you win, who can take it away from you? If you lose, what does it matter?”

O’Toole then recounted an inside story of his ex­perience with the 1972 Nixon campaign. He and other advertising advisers developed documentary films in one-minute and five-minute lengths. “They dealt with substantive issues and supported them with actual accomplishments,” he said. “But they never ran.”

Continuing, O’Toole writes: “Other forces in the White House—led, I was told, by Bob Haldeman (an advertising man manqué)–had another group producing 30-second spots that never showed Nixon, or anyone else, on camera. They talked about how vacillating McGovern was, while showing a weather vane with George’s face flipping back and forth with the wind. They talked about how dangerous his defense policy was while showing a hand disdainfully sweeping warships off the chessboard. They said nothing.”

What changes is O’Toole inclined to favor? He mentions Great Britain where political commercials on television are forbidden, But the two networks—the BBC and ITV—provide a certain number of free broadcasts to each political party, based roughly on the membership of each party. He cites a study by the Twentieth Century Fund recommending, to quote O’Toole, “that during the last five weeks of a presidential campaign all TV and radio stations simultaneously carry six prime-time half-hour programs featuring the candidates…”

“The Fund’s recommendations,” writes the ad­vertising executive, “point to the importance of the kind of political message to be used. Ten-second, 30-second, even 60-second lengths are inadequate and inappropriate for presenting a candidate to the voter. These lengths defy a discussion of issues and en­courage the shallowest kind of imagery, the shoddiest kind of logic and the most reprehensible mud­slinging.”

He makes the little-known point that candidates can buy longer time segments at “the rate charged for program material rather than at commercial rates,” since “the cost for five minutes is far less than for a 30-second spot.”

O’Toole then offers a three-part standards code for political broadcast messages. His suggestions would encourage more substantive campaigning in our country and would serve as an indirect campaign finance reform. For when political candidates are given free time on TV, they won’t have to grovel before special interests to ask for quite the volume of campaign contributions. And that’s got to be good for the prospect of cleaner politics.

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