26 March 2012

Advertising and the political marketplace

Not long after Paul Begala published his idiotic paean to negative advertising, the April 2012 issue of Monthly Review arrived in my mailbox with a cover feature on the "bull market" for political advertising. John Bellamy Foster and John Nichols take the comparison between political and consumer advertising more seriously than Begala does. Of course, they have 25 pages to play with against Begala's one-page opinion column, so more interesting observations are inevitable. The authors consider political advertising in the context of advertising history, noting that consumer advertising (or what they call "modern persuasion advertising") "blossomed as a function of markets that were less competitive by economists' standards, and are generally referred to as oligopolies." They argue that the firms who share in oligopoly lack incentives to challenge each other to cut-throat price wars, but still compete to maximize market share.They do that by differentiating themselves from each other as much as possible by creating distinctive brands. As the authors write, "the more products are alike and the more the prices are similar, the more the firms must advertise to convince people they are different." That doesn't mean that there isn't the proverbial dime's worth of difference between the two major parties, but Foster and Nichols emphasize that advertising based on the acknowledged differences increases in volume and vehemence so long as "the basics of how the corporate economy is structured or U.S. foreign policy are pretty much off the table, much like price and product information in beer advertising, [since] the two parties largely concur on the most important matters of governance."

On the subject of negative advertising, Foster and Nichols agree with Begala that consumer advertisers have little reason to go negative on each other, since "there are no bonus points for simply decreasing a competitor's sales." Negative product advertising could also backfire against the advertiser, they warn, since an attack by Coors, for instance, on Budweiser may turn people off on beer altogether. The authors see that effect as the consequence of negative political advertising. Attacks on individual politicians and parties turn people off on politics in general. "Depoliticization is an eminently rational, if ultimately self-defeating, response to the asininity of a political universe where negative political advertising is the lingua franca." Under such circumstances the major difference between political and consumer advertising is that political parties need not care if the market shrinks. It doesn't matter how few people vote, since whoever gets the most votes, no matter how small the turnout, wins the election.

Foster and Nichols would reform conditions by going after the TV industry, mainly by reasserting broadcasters' obligation to provide free airtime for political candidates. They would make free airtime a condition of stations getting their licenses renewed. Such a recourse raises the familiar question of standards entitling any candidate to inevitably limited airtime, but the idea is still admirable. Perhaps more realistically, the authors look to the day, which shouldn't be far off, when the internet becomes the main medium for political advertising and TV loses its expensive significance as the shortest way to the largest audience. They don't take for granted that the web will break the power of money, but they do see that TV is part of a "money and media electoral complex" drowning politics in "a sea of money, idiocy and corruption." Some idiots can swim, of course, and think the water's fine -- but what about the rest of us?

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