May 25, 2004

Avoiding the greedy grasp of Presidential politics.

On an interior page of the paper NYT, this front page article ("Campaign Ads Are Under Fire for Inaccuracy") continues alongside this article ("Chance of Delayed Nomination Vexes Boston"). The problem of unfair advertising is getting worse, and the annoyance of having a convention in your town is also getting a lot worse, both because of 9/11 precautions and because you notice it a lot more if it doesn't even accomplish a nomination. Boston, which is hosting the Democratic convention that Kerry might manipulate into a nonnominating event, is undertaking some fairly extreme measures:
Convention organizers recently announced that North Station, one of the city's main commuter rail terminals, will be closed convention week and that miles of busy Interstate 93 will be shut down during evening hours.... Many Boston commuters have said they will take the week off, while others plan to car pool or telecommute. Bars and restaurants near the convention site expect to prosper, but other nearby businesses were considering closing for the week -- even before Kerry's possible convention strategy became public.

The FleetCenter presents special security challenges because of its proximity to North Station, overhead rail lines and the tunnels of the newly completed Big Dig highway project.

Although [Mayor] Menino's office had projected the convention would bring $154 million to the city, two recent studies concluded that the loss of worker productivity and tourism traffic, combined with the cancellation of other events, has turned the gathering into a net loss for Boston.'

You can't ignore a convention taking over your city, but why not ignore those ads, which are obviously not a good way to get information? The fact that all that money is spent is a good indication that ads work, even though, you would think, Americans are pretty savvy about advertising and its distortions. The NYT interviews some experts:
"Even people who don't think there is much information in these ads and say they don't learn anything from them tell us they believe factoids they could only have gotten from these ads, and they're wrong," said Brooks Jackson, director of, an Annenberg Public Policy Center Web site that vets political advertisements for accuracy. "It's beyond subliminal — it's something else I haven't come up with a name for."

This month the Annenberg Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, released a poll of voters in battleground states that found many believed misleading statements made in the advertisements....

Kenneth M. Goldstein, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said it was to be expected that the campaigns would take liberties, and that with both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush flush with cash, there was plenty of time for them to answer each other's claims.

"Politics is about putting your best foot forward and putting the other person in the worst light," Mr. Goldstein said. "Do we expect someone who's advertising to say, `You know, I really don't want to put this person's record in the worst light because that's not fair'?"

In the end, Mr. Jackson of said, all that can be done is to continue to vet commercials for accuracy and try to set the record straight as publicly as possible. That, he said, is an occasionally thankless task:

"I've had consultants tell me, `Your ad ... runs once, my ad runs many times; who's going to win?'"

Well, that's all very depressing, and obviously the vaunted campaign finance reform does nothing to solve these problems. I usually only watch the ads if I want to make fun of them, but I suppose I need to worry that they will affect me subliminally--or beyond subliminally!--even if I think I am completely above their influence. I don't know if I want everyone to skip commercials the way I do, since I appreciate all the free media that is supported by advertisers who are only participating because they do manage to influence people. And, more seriously, I don't think you can clean up the world and purify the processes that influence public opinion. The world would be entirely different if people were forming their political opinions based entirely on true information and rational thought. If people were already elevated to that pure state, the issues that politicians today use to promote themselves probably wouldn't even exist. So I'm not going to wring my hands too much about all the money, the pointless conventions, and the horrible advertisements. It's all part of the messy, complicated world we must live in and can find our own little ways to enjoy. Personally, I'm going to avert my eyes from the vast load of crap that the money is spent on, and try to figure a few things out from the news, and make a decision sometime in late October about who would make the better President.

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