The Bull Market Political Advertising

By McChesney, Robert W.; Nichols, John | Monthly Review, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Bull Market Political Advertising


McChesney, Robert W., Nichols, John, Monthly Review


The United States is in the midst of its quadrennial presidential election, a process that now extends so long as to be all but permanent. The campaign is also drenched in more money given by a small handful of billionaires than has been the case in the past. Since the 1970s the amount spent on political campaigns has increased dramatically in almost every election cycle. It has led to the formation of what we term the "money-and-media election complex," which has a revenue base in the many billions of campaign dollars donated annually, and has effectively become the foundation of electoral politics in the United States. Moreover, the rate of increase in campaign spending from 2008 to 2010, and especially from 2008 to 2012, is now at an all-time high.

American elections are being transformed and supercharged by the Supreme Court's January 2010 Citizens United ruling. But the changes, even at this early stage of the 2012 campaign, have proven more dramatic and unsettling than all but the most fretful analysts had imagined. Citizens United's easing of restrictions on corporate and individual spending, especially by organizations not under the control of candidates, has led to the proliferation of "Super PACs." These shadowy groups do not have to abide by the $2,500 limit on donations to actual campaigns, and they can easily avoid rules for reporting sources of contributions.

The two logical questions then are where does all this money get spent and what are the effects of this spending on elections and the political system? The short answer to the first question is known by all participants in and observers of American elections: the majority of the money goes to political advertising, and within political advertising the vast majority goes to television ads. The percentage of campaign spending that goes to TV ads has increased sharply over the past forty years. If there is a rule it is that the closer a race, the more money will be spent on the campaigns, and the higher the proportion that will go to paid TV political advertisements. "We spent the vast majority of our money last time on broadcast television," Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod told attendees at a 2011 cable convention. "It's still the nuclear weapon."1 This year, according to a fresh report to investors from Needham and Company's industry analysts, television stations will reap as much as $5 billion - up from $2.8 billion in 2008.

As for the second question, there is a range of effects. That is what we turn to in this Review of the Month.

For Americans born after 1950, and for those born before 1950 but with faltering memories, the televised commercial deluge that now defines American political campaigns likely seems the natural order of things, for better or for worse.2 But American campaigns were significantly different in the 175 years before political advertising, specifically television political advertising, became the order of the day. When one reads Theodore White's epic The Making of the President series, especially for 1960 and 1964, the emerging role of television is a recurring theme - but TV political advertising is barely present in the early 1960s volumes. By White's account, Nixon paid virtually no attention to his Madison Avenue advisors throughout his unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign.3 Joe Klein recounts how his research shows that in the 1950s and '60s candidates routinely hired advertising experts and pollsters, "But these were peripheral advisers; they didn't run the campaigns."4

This quickly changed. In 1969 Joe McGinniss published his groundbreaking The Selling of the President, to chronicle what he termed "a striking new phenomenon - the marketing of political candidates as if they were consumer products." The book, which involved McGinniss spending time with Nixon's television advertising advisors including Roger Ailes during the 1968 presidential campaign, seemed shocking and a sharp departure from the political-driven campaign narratives provided by the likes of White. …

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