The recent announcement of a coordinated $350 million election-year effort by independent liberal and progressive groups — including MoveOn, the AFL-CIO, Change To Win, Women’ Voices, Women Vote, the National Council of La Raza, Acorn and Rock the Vote — is profoundly impressive. Together with the Democratic candidates’ tremendous success in direct small-donor fundraising this year it raises the hope that Dems might actually come close to matching or surpassing the Republicans in overall funding.
Lurking in the background, however, is the ominous fact that pro-Republican independent groups – led by Freedom Watch which by itself already has a $250 million war chest — will still probably far outspend pro-Democratic independent groups. As Freedom Watch’s treasurer bluntly told one reporter recently, in 2008, “money won’t be an object”. Moreover, because the large liberal-progressive organizations are generally more oriented toward grass-roots and GOTV organizing than big-money advertising campaigns, it is probable that in the specific area of TV and radio advertising by independent committees the pro-Republican advantage will be even greater. This is particularly disturbing because independent committee money – free from the need for the candidate to directly endorse its message – is the best tool for the most dishonest and scurrilous type of attack ads.
Behind the myriad minor variations, the basic strategy of the “slime attack” or “character assassination” category of advertising is usually to dishonestly associate a Democrat with some kind of deeply negative stereotype or schema that is already strongly embedded in the voter’s mind. Barack Obama provides a particularly rich target in this respect. Because of his unconventional personal history and background, it is almost trivially easy for a skilled ad designer to slyly imply that he is (or once was) anything from a “secret Muslim” to a “Black militant”, a “60’s radical”, an “inner city crack user”, an “ivy- league liberal snob” or a “corrupt Chicago pol”. (The comparable attack on Hillary Clinton would focus on activating negative schemas involving liberals and professional women – the “anti-family women’s libber,” the “snotty, rich do-gooder”, the “affluent limousine liberal”, and the “bitch”, “witch”, or “man-hater.”)
These subtle forms of character assassination work best when they are not consciously analyzed by the audience but absorbed in the background. This takes advantage of the unconscious assumption many people now make that while all political ads are untrustworthy, they are also all roughly equal in their degree of mendacity (e.g. “all those political ads are crap”, “It’s all just a bunch of B.S.”). This unfortunately common mental short-cut enhances the credibility of attacks that are based on slander and innuendo and diminishes the credibility of those that are more factually based.
There are two standard Democratic responses to attacks of this kind – (1) directly defending against the specific accusation or (2) making a comparably slashing counter-attack. Both have major drawbacks.
On the one hand, political strategists universally dislike simple responses to attacks because continually “playing defense” is considered ultimately a losing strategy. On the other hand, liberals are handicapped in playing tit-for tat with conservatives because of their generally less ruthless political outlook (it is hard, for example, to imagine any of the leading liberal independent committees producing material suggesting that a Republican fathered an illegitimate Black child–as pro-Bush operatives suggested about McCain at one point in 2000–or presenting patently phony “witnesses” to dishonestly discredit a soldiers medals, as the swift-boaters did to John Kerry in 2004).
However, in trying to match the provocative, infuriating and attention-getting effect of conservative “slime attacks” without resorting to outright lies and dishonest innuendo, liberal independent committees often find themselves making attacks that come across as exaggerated, strident or shrill to undecided voters. The “General betray-us” New York Times ad, for example, was popular with highly partisan anti-war Democrats because of its’ bitter, “in-your-face” expression of anger and disrespect, but it had a zero or negative persuasive effect on other voters.
There is an alternative strategy Democrats can consider, however – one based on research conducted during the 1950’s on how people can best be taught to resist “brainwashing” techniques like those used on GI’s in the Korean War. Two important findings were the “inoculation” effect (that prior, controlled exposure to propaganda significantly reduces its effectiveness) and the “ulterior motive” or “hidden agenda” effect (that awareness of a message source’s manipulative intent reduces its persuasiveness) On the surface both notions seem so self-evident as to be trivial, but the demonstration that they were empirically measurable phenomena made it possible for communication specialists to argue that it could sometimes be worthwhile to allocate scarce advertising dollars to messages that employed them.
The possible strategy that flows from this research is simple – allocate some part of the pro-Democratic ad budget to directly and explicitly attacking the “independent” conservative committees like Freedom Watch and their commercials.
This attack should aim to achieve two goals:
The first should be to vividly point out and expose the manipulative techniques being employed. One can easily imagine a rather effective ad campaign featuring a group of ad execs sitting around a table with an initially innocuous picture of Obama or Hillary. “Darken the shadows”, says one, “Make the face look more evasive”. >“Make the background music more ominous”, says another “like something bad is going to happen”. Experimental studies have shown that an ads’ effect is substantially reduced when it is explicitly presented to the audience as an effort in persuasion. In fact this strategy could be used to directly deconstruct individual pro-Republican ads and expose the precise elements of “brainwashing” they contain. The underlying message should be that “Americans are fair-minded people – they want to listen to both sides and make up their own minds. They don’t like being brainwashed or manipulated. It’s time for this “Manchurian Candidate” kind of advertising to stop”.
The second is to explicitly challenge the profoundly undemocratic character of massive ad campaigns paid for by secret clubs of rich people (Freedom Watch, for example, is organized legally in a way designed to hide the identities of its donors). Ads paid for by voluntary contributions of small donors (as MoveOn’s ads are, for example) or by grass-roots, dues-supported mass membership organizations (like the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, or union political action funds) have a legitimate role in a democracy. On the other hand, as MoveOn’s head Wes Boyd recently said, Freedom Watch is doing “attack ads by Republican Beltway operatives, financed by billionaires, at the request of the White House”.
Right now most voters do not consciously distinguish between ads funded by small donors or large membership organizations on the one hand and those funded by secretive “rich men’s clubs” on the other. It should be possible, however, to dramatize the difference and why it matters.
(It is worth noting one potential objection to this approach — that it will inevitably provoke reciprocal conservative attacks on the legitimacy of ads by liberal independent committees and also stimulate ugly personal attacks on major liberal funders like George Soros. These are legitimate concerns but given the likely Republican financial advantage in independent committee TV and radio ad spending, however, generally challenging this kind of advertising should benefit the Democrats more than their opponents. Conservatives also already demonize liberal funders like George Soros to such an appalling extent that little worse is possible. Moreover, Freedom Watch itself is actually quite vulnerable in this regard. The organizations’ leading funder, multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson, owns a vast international gambling casino empire that stretches from Las Vegas to Singapore (“values voters,” take notice!). He’s rabidly anti-union and anti-workers rights (heads up, rust-belt union voters!). He has close personal links to the Likud Party in Israel, and is a prime mover in a very “hush-hush” campaign to build support for military action against Iran. He actively injects all of these personal agendas into Freedom Watch. He is, to put it simply, not a figure an organization like Freedom Watch will want to see attracting too much public and media scrutiny.
If a strategy of the above kind is judged potentially useful, it is important to begin the effort early. On the one hand the early ads will alert and sensitize the media to the issue and hopefully generate a broader discussion. Moreover, it is possible that discrediting early Freedom Watch ads could have a kind of multiplier effect if the persuasive effect of subsequent ads is diminished as well. Both these factors argue that this kind of campaign could be more then typically cost-effective.
(To take a quick example, if all professionally produced political ads are assumed to usually be about equally effective–a plausible initial assumption–then a $15 million progressive ad campaign will simply cancel out an equal $15 million of conservative ad spending. On the other hand, if spending that same $15 million on a campaign aimed directly at undermining the persuasiveness of Freedom Watch’s commercials succeeds in reducing the overall effectiveness of its $250 million war chest by just 10 percent, this will represent a $25 million persuasive effect.)
Given the importance of allocating painfully scarce progressive and Democratic ad dollars in the best possible way, some focus group and small scale pre-testing must be done to make sure that the potential benefits of this approach will be sufficient to justify the diversion of resources. But such testing needs to start as quickly as possible because, for maximum effect, the attack on pro-Republican independent committees should begin as soon as they begin running their first ad campaigns.
James Vega is a strategic marketing consultant whose clients include non-profit organizations and high-tech firms.