Corporate Money Dominates Issues Advertising

By Bischoff, Dan | St. Louis Journalism Review, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

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.

Advocating image

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. …

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