Media

Imagine if Politicians Were Forced to Tell the Truth in Their Ad Campaigns

Lies distort every critical issue the U.S. faces.

A record $3.7+ billion is pouring into the 2014 midterms. The monetary floodgates are wide open, thanks to recent Supreme Court election decisions. Most of that money is spent on advertising, much of which misleads, distorts and downright lies. The donors for more than half of TV ads are not fully disclosed. Someone is profiting, but it sure isn’t you. And it’s definitely not the country.

It is legal to lie in national political advertising. Federal candidates can say just about anything they want, protected by the Court’s interpretation of free speech. The stand-by-your-ad statement: “I approve this message,” doesn’t mean it’s true, but it does get candidates the cheapest TV and radio ad rates, in compliance with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. If a federal candidate’s ad is deceptive, broadcasters have to run it, as required by the Federal Communications Commission.

Trying to fight the laws in court, Congress or the regulatory agencies can be costly, take many years, and result in unintended consequences. Requiring truth in political advertising is up to you and me. We need to change the playing field by using our own voices and votes to demand honest political ads. This is why I’ve created HonestAds.org with just one mission – to disrupt deceptive political advertising. Together, we can put candidates on notice that they’ll lose if they lie.

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Because it’s perfectly legal to lie in political advertising and because those messages impact voters’ beliefs, this is an issue that leads to broad public misconceptions. Lies distort every critical issue the U.S. faces. And, on a societal scale, how do we teach our children to tell the truth when they see their future leaders lie?

To complicate matters, studies show that even when people are told that a fact is a lie, they remember it as the truth. And “A far greater percentage of voters hear the original lie in a campaign ad than ever read about the fact-checked version in a local paper or website,” reports Amy Sullivan in Time. Brooks Jackson of Factcheck.org adds: "You hear people say, “The ads must have some truth to them, or they wouldn't let them on television…Truth-in-advertising lulls us into a false sense of security."

Jackson is referring to the Federal Trade Commission truth-in-advertising-laws that were created to protect consumers from misleading advertising statements. Many think they apply to political ads, but they don’t. If you lie about toilet paper you can be prosecuted (granted that’s got to be some crazy promise you’re making). If you lie about political issues you get a pass. Yes, there are libel laws, but this route has its own barriers and, even if you were able to proceed, by the time you get to court the election may well be over.

Political consultants know all of this. Too many campaigns count on it.

Aside from the ads, there is misinformation and misunderstanding about how political advertising even works. What is true and what is false and what are unexpected consequences? HonestAds.org fills you in. You will be surprised.

You can lie in the ads, you can lie about what you’ve said in the ads, and your opponent can lie about you. The winning candidate may be elected by the least informed intermittent voters, who make their decisions based on dishonest attack ads in the last few weeks of an election. As reported in Rolling Stone,Stephen Colbert sums it up: "The fate of our country is now in the hands of people who don’t think about what they want until they get right up to the register at McDonald’s."

Lying in advertising is not a one party problem. All parties do it. Ask Democrats and they’ll indignantly tell you Republicans lie. Ask Republicans and they’ll emphatically tell you Democrats do. There are facts, and there are opinions. HonestAds.org provides relevant links to help you make your own decisions.

There is no question that truth and trust are key to American daily lives and the health of America’s economy. They go hand in hand. Yet, according to the 2013 McCann Truth About Politics Study 2014, the public thinks politicians are less truthful than they used to be and will say anything to get elected. They feel it’s hard to find the truth these days and one person alone cannot make a difference. Public relations firm Edelman’s 2014 Global Trust Barometer finds: 81% feel that to build trust CEO’s need to “tell the truth regardless of how complex or unpopular it is,” and 84% believe “business can pursue its self-interest while doing good work for society.” A September 2014 New York Times/CBS News poll reports that only 5% of Americans think most members of Congress deserved re-election; 87% say it’s time for new people. Congress as a group obviously isn’t listening; business and political leaders individually can listen and can respond, if only they will. It’s in their own and our best interests.

It is time to challenge and pressure our political parties, candidates, super PACs, 501(c)(4)’s, and their funders. To disrupt the status quo, we have to create a new behavioral paradigm whereby lying in ads becomes unpopular, uncomfortable and unacceptable. We have to go directly to our friends, families, neighbors, business associates and leaders. Politicians should lose if they lie.

HonestAds' plan is not to take the usual political route and throw tons of money into targeted ads directed to potential voters in one state; but, instead, to be tactical (what we can do now), strategic (how we can accomplish our goal over time), and broad (when and where we reach the public-at-large).

Here are ways HonestAds is helping to ignite action prior to the November 4th mid-terms as well as larger ideas underway for the future:

YOU can hold politicians accountablenow. This is easy. Go to HonestAds.org, input your zip code, and in less than one minute you can reach a specific politician with the question: “Will you state: ‘I approve the truth of this message’ in your political ads?” The more a candidate or elected official receives the question, the more pressure to answer. Responses (and the lack of) are announced and posted publically by HonestAds.org and our partner AskThem.io. Is there one candidate for national office with the track record and guts to step up and state: “I approve the truth of this message” or the even shorter “This ad is true”? If that candidate gains support, others will follow.

NEWS ORGANIZATIONS can impose truth “citation” standards:Let’s encourage national and local newspapers and news organizations – in all media -- to impose “Truth Standards” whereby candidates voluntarily provide citations for the ‘facts” they use in their ads. They can partner with fact checkers, staff it themselves or, reach out for help from local journalism schools (great training for up and coming reporters). Announce those candidates who cite source information and those who don’t. Make those lists public in a consistent timely way. A side benefit may be additional ad revenues, as candidates and their funders recognize there is an audience in a space or time slot they can reach. This effort requires a common name, consistent standards and industry buy-in…or an industry association or industry leader who will take the initiative within their own organization. The former requires funding, and HonestAds is putting together a proposal to obtain it.

CORPORATIONS and INSTITUTIONS can increase trust:We need to plant basic understanding where we live, work, learn and play, i.e. schools, universities, cultural institutions, art centers, libraries, conferences, shopping malls, transportation hubs. Think of public places as “media” – where we can get the word out in all forms and in all venues whether it be university political clubs, blasts at football games, exhibits at museums and libraries, assemblies at high schools, or kiosks at shopping malls. For companies who recognize that trust is fundamental to their brand, these are places to build it. HonestAds is looking for sponsors for a number of initiatives in these types of venues, some are committed projects, and others are in the works.

AD AGENCIES can act as change agents:We need to create messaging that demonstrates how political lies impact our lives, communities and country, and go to the best of the loudest to make those messages compelling. You may remember Partnership for Drug Free America was the ad industries answer to the crack drug epidemic. Who can argue that deceptive advertising isn’t a more far-reaching epidemic of another kind? A Nielsen study tell us consumer trust in advertising is increasing, a turnaround from a few years earlier. It is time for agencies to step up to the plate and organize to fight a growing virus in their midst -- deceptive political advertising that may very well negate trust and the reputation of the advertising industry overall. HonestAds is reaching out to industry associations and agencies. The One Club, arguably, the world’s foremost non-profit organization devoted to elevating creative work in the advertising industry, is an HonestAds sponsor.

WE can turn political TV ads off, literally:Media listens to money. Politicians listen to money and votes. For the 2016 Presidential election, impact both by calling for a nationwide Political-Ad-TV-Turnoff. Judging from the public disgust, this may not be so difficult.

HonestAds plans to use KickStarter or another crowd funding group and reach out to great creative talent and PR groups with grass roots knowhow to pull this off. Want to partner, sponsor, donate, and start that process now? Email talk@HonestAds.org.

Leaders should lead, not lie.

You can be politically complicit by supporting candidates who believe that “When the stakes are high, lie.” Or you can put a stake in the ground by joining us at HonestAds and letting politicians know: “You want my vote. I want the truth.”

We don’t accept deceit from anyone else in our lives. Not our co-workers. Not our friends. Not our loved ones. Yet, when campaigning politicians do it, we simply shrug and say: “That’s the way it is.”

How much longer do we want to continue electing America’s leaders this way?

Watch the Walkout Satire Video Below, and downloadable here.

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Harriett Levin Balkind, a former partner of a brand and integrated communications agency, recently founded nonpartisan HonestAds.org to disrupt deceptive political advertising and increase understanding of how political advertising works.