Corporate Money Dominates Issues Advertising
Bischoff, Dan, St. Louis Journalism Review
On March 27 The Hill, a Washington newspaper with a definite inside-the-Beltway readership, ran a full-page ad featuring a silhouette of the Capitol with a banner hanging from its dome. In huge letters, the sign read, "FOR SALE - ONLY MILLIONAIRES NEED APPLY." The text of the ad went on to specifically attack a bill proposed by Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.), which, the ad says, would result in "more domination by wealthy contributors and more millionaires in Congress."
Smith's bill proposes, among other things, banning all contributions from political action committees. The ad was part of a $25,000 Beltway issues advertising campaign by the National Association of Business Political Action Committees (NABPAC) - the trade association for PACs. Its intent was to defend PACs as a "reform that has worked." And its concerns - given that more than two dozen campaign finance reform bills have been introduced in the 104th Congress - are real.
NABPAC's advertising will hardly be the last we'll see on this subject over the next six months, with some of it likely to come from the opposing side.
"We have no formal plans to air issue ads supporting campaign finance reform right now, but it's always an option," says Common Cause Executive Vice President Don Simon. Over the past year Common Cause has participated in a series of town meetings with members of Perot's United We Stand, the League of Women Voters, and Public Citizen to promote campaign finance reform legislation. "There are some TV ads we're looking at now, and everyone talks about ideas for ads in the meetings we've been holding around the country," Simon says. "But if we do mount a campaign, it will probably be for Common Cause alone."
Others have already taken a few first steps. The Center for Responsive Politics is developing a series of informational print ads. The Creative Coalition, headed by actor Alec Baldwin, aired general campaign finance reform ads on the Comedy Channel this winter. On April 18, a full-page ad appeared in The New York Times. It was an appeal for free air time for candidates and was signed by a bi-partisan cross-section of journalists, lawmakers, academics and good-government types (including Center Director Ellen Miller). The ad was paid for by a new non-partisan group, the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition.
Corporate tax write-off
Of course, the direct advertising sponsored by private groups on the issue of campaign finance reform is only a tiny percentage of all the political advertising that will air between now and November. And issues advertising - which, like NABPAC's ad, is privately sponsored with no official relationship to any political party - is likely to be among the most numerous this season.
"There's no doubt in my mind that as the election approaches in 1996, we are going to see a lot more issues advertising," says Brown University Professor Darrell West, who is working on a book, tentatively titled The Sound of Money (Norton, 1997), about the influence of corporate advocacy campaigns on the political process. "And I'm sure a lot of groups are deducting the costs of such advertising - traditionally, the courts have allowed a very broad definition of 'public education,' and money spent on such efforts is deductible. So ultimately, the American taxpayer foots the bill for most of it."
Of course, any private group can mount an issues ad blitz. But preliminary studies have shown that as much as three-fourths of all such ads are financed by corporations.
Issues or advocacy advertising by a corporation does not attempt to sell its products but to persuade the public to make a policy change that the corporation favors. One of the earliest - and most successful - examples is AT&T's 1908 newspaper campaign extolling the benefits of a privately held monopoly, which helped establish the corporation's unusual 75-year status within an otherwise free market economy.
During the Cold War many corporations financed campaigns lauding the free enterprise system. In the anti-business 1970s, issues campaigns helped "corporate image-building." By superimposing the corporate logo on pictures of grain fields or sunsets, they aimed to stimulate vague "good feelings" about the company. Corporations spent some $150 million on issues advertising in 1970.
But after the creation of The New York Times op-ed page and Mobil Oil's highly successful op-ed "letters," issue advertising became much more political. Dozens of corporations began waging paid media campaigns.
It is hard to gauge spending on issues ads since there are no reporting requirements. Moreover, because the networks still reject most issues ads, and sponsors must therefore buy time on local stations and cable, monitoring is extremely difficult. However, over the past two decades, it is estimated that spending on issues ads has grown to account for at least between .6 and .9 percent of all advertising expenses. Putting that fraction into perspective, that would mean in 1988 between $720 million and $1.08 billion was spent on issues ads.
Their impact has been striking. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, concern about the national deficit trailed behind jobs, crime, and America's status in the world. But when the Business Roundtable published a four-page anti-deficit ad in Reader's Digest in 1985, it received more than 900,000 responses - which were forwarded to government officials. Soon W.R. Grace, the giant chemicals concern, was trying to get its anti-deficit ad, directed by Ridley Scott, who also gave us Thelma and Louise, on the networks. (Their refusal may well have paved the way to the Reagan administration's dumping of the Fairness Doctrine.) By the 1990s, government cutbacks and deficit reduction had become a litmus test for politicians.
And the campaign continues. Just last year the Coalition for Change - which is made up of groups like the Business Roundtable, and whose ads are paid for by companies like Hewlett-Packard and Procter & Gamble - became the first organization to do issues advertising on MTV. To personalize the costs of the deficit for GenXers, the Coalition ad shows a black-garbed twentysomething roaming a vast left apartment complaining that she had to pay $800 in taxes to finance the national debt.
Driving the debate
One attractive advantage of issues advertising, as opposed to classic political spending (i.e., campaign contributions), is the fact that there are few bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
"I believe that this year there will be a lot of groups that will simply not register with the FEC and start running ads during the election cycle," Professor West says. As long as there is no direct coordination of the advertising by one of the political parties or campaign staffs, independent advocacy ads are entirely unregulated. "It's open season in an area with no disclosure requirements and no funding limits."
Another attraction is that advertisers can control the message more closely, and are therefore more likely to get just what they want. Much of the recent upsurge in issues advertising results from the success of the 1993 "Harry and Louise" ads, which were sponsored by the insurance industry in the hope of defeating the Clinton health care reform bill. Those ads featured a middle-aged couple in their kitchen expressing their worries about the Democratic plan; it created the impression that their concerns were commonplace, middle class. The ads suggested a virtual movement - in the vein of "I'm not a populist, but I play one on TV."
The industry spent perhaps as much as a billion dollars to air ads like "Harry and Louise" in 1993, and health care reform flopped. It was an important lesson in politics. The Republican National Committee unveiled its new campaign ads in early April, and guess what: they feature a middle-aged, middle-class couple complaining about the Democrats, taxes, and government spending. In their kitchen.
Dan Bischoff is the European editor of World Business, a multinational magazine based in Manhattan. The article is reprinted with permission by Capital Eye published by the Center for Responsive Politics,…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Corporate Money Dominates Issues Advertising. Contributors: Bischoff, Dan - Author. Magazine title: St. Louis Journalism Review. Volume: 26. Issue: 188 Publication date: July-August 1996. Page number: 11+. © 1999 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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