Deceptive Political Advertising: Some New Dimensions

By Misra, Shekhar | Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Deceptive Political Advertising: Some New Dimensions


Misra, Shekhar, Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues


INTRODUCTION

The long-term success of democracy is predicated upon citizens making informed and reasonably rational decisions about the choices that they have. Yet, the growing role and influence of political advertising in elections has resulted in the ability of interested parties to manipulate individual opinions in overt and covert ways. That issue got exacerbated by the Supreme Court ruling in 2010, commonly referred to as Citizens United that paved the way for unlimited inflow of money to political campaigns and "SuperPACS" (Adweek 2012; Nichols and McChesney 2012). It may be too early to evaluate the full impact of the court verdict but already vast sums of money have been flowing to political action committees (e.g., http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/index.php). (Note: There are now many tools readily available to track money flows including www.followthemoney.org and www.maplight.org.) It has been estimated that in the 2010 mid-term election campaign "More than 90 percent of voters .. .encountered information they deemed misleading or false. More than half of voters - regardless of political affiliation - say this occurred frequently. Moreover, a majority of voters say the level of misleading information was higher than usual." (Clemmitt 2011, p. 148) Many other questions have been raised as well, regarding how the system may be broken (Sides et al, 2014) This raises questions about the ethics of some of these campaigns, as well as having long term implications for society. It is proposed here that a better understanding of the underlying psychological processes involved may enhance our ability to address related issues. There are numerous areas of concern in this arena, and this paper examines one that may be particularly susceptible to abuse. Specifically, this paper explores the theoretical background relating to the possible impact of single instances on voter decision-making. Especially when a single instance (or attribute of a candidate) is used to create a potentially false impression regarding the candidate. Since it is harder to put in perspective recent events, examples are used mostly from earlier years. Examples of single instances tainting the image of candidates in the past were the Willie Horton ad used in the 1988 presidential election against Michael Dukakis, and the ads featuring Monica Lewinsky and the finger wagging President Clinton during the 1998 elections (Mayer 2012). The ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 presidential election against John Kerry (Knight 2008). The attempts to portray George W. Bush as a "draft dodger" were similarly used to provide instances of how each of the candidates was weak on defense issues. (Esquire 2004)

The First Amendment considerations indicate that the Federal Trade Commission will not be mandating corrective advertising for deceptive political ads anytime soon, despite concerns (Federal Trade Commission 2008). Therefore, we must find other means to minimize this degradation of democracy while preserving free speech. Why and how are political advertisements able to use deception to manipulate public opinion? If we had a better understanding of the process, we might be able to create mechanisms that limit this travesty of the democratic process. The review of research from various areas presented here should enhance our understanding of advertising in general and deceptive political advertising in particular. A model of the process is presented, along with possible remedies for alleviating the effects of deceptive political advertising. Hopefully, this will lead to appropriate action by governmental and private agencies, leading to better consumer (citizen/voter) protection.

BACKGROUND

Ordinarily, consumers base their decisions on general principles and rules that they have abstracted from experience. For example, many people have a rule of thumb: always vote for the same political party irrespective of the individual candidate. …

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