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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democrats: the issue of “secret money” behind the pro-GOP TV ad blitz can have a huge pro-Democratic “multiplier effect” beyond the obvious populist appeal. Properly communicated, the issue can make voters distrust the ads and ignore their messages.

Democrats have always complained about the effect of corporate cash bankrolling massive ad campaigns and the problem has become vastly worse since the Citizen’s United court decision made secret contributions from unknown sources essentially the most important source of funding for political campaign advertising.
The Center for American Progress dropped an elegant depth charge into this secret world by exposing the facts that the Chamber of Commerce – a major source of this money – does not even keep money from foreign corporations separated from the domestic funds it uses for political ads and insultingly dismisses all calls for openness by essentially saying “it’s none of your F-ing business.”
The details make it even worse, with Chamber employees giving pep talks about the importance of the 2010 elections to foreign members of the organization – even to foreign firms that directly benefit from the export of American jobs overseas.
This provides great ammunition for populist attacks on the tidal wave of secret spending. But Democrats will not be taking advantage of the full power of this issue if they restrict their criticism to this particular line of attack alone.
The emergence of secret corporate cash as a major last-minute issue in the election gives Dems the opportunity to reduce the effectiveness of all Republican advertising — using a fundamental principle derived from social psychology.
In general, Americans know that the advertisements they see on TV are not “real”, even when they feature testimonials by average looking people with a caption below them that says “not a professional actor.” Many years of familiarity with commercials have trained the audience to be able to maintain a basic skepticism– because they know the ad is paid for by the seller — but still entertain the idea that the message being communicated might nonetheless be valid. Generally, viewers do not cognitively categorize commercials as simply either “true” or “false” but rather as either “plausible” or “implausible.” The audience knows, for example, that the square-jawed cowboy praising his Toyota Tundra as a rugged ranch vehicle probably doesn’t drive one, or necessarily even like the machine. But if the commercial is well made, it can still convince the viewer that the Tundra is worth considering as a rough-terrain truck.
Political advertisements work in much the same way. Viewers know that the ads are all one-sided propaganda for the candidates and not “facts,” but they still allow themselves to be influenced by messages that seem sufficiently plausible or convincing.
One basic finding from social psychology, however, is that, if a viewers’ conscious attention can be diverted from the content of an ad to suspicion about the motives of the communicator, the effectiveness of the ad actually does decline tremendously. In effect, if the viewers’ skepticism is consciously activated, the usual “Well, who knows? I know it’s just a commercial but what it says still might be true” reflex is inhibited. The viewer’s attention becomes focused on the commercial itself rather than the message it delivers.
Since Democrats all over the country are now being swamped with a tidal wave of nasty attack ads funded with secret money, every attempt to make voters focus their attention on the secret money behind the ads – rather than on the words of the ad itself – can have a very significant effect. The way to most effectively execute this strategy is with messages that directly and dramatically challenge voters to actively and skeptically think about the commercials they see at the moment when they appear on the TV screen.
Here are several examples of the kinds of messages that can substantially increase voter resistance to secret money anti-Democratic ads.

• That TV ad you are watching right now – guess what? It was paid for by the same people who shipped your job overseas. Are you really going to take advice from people like them?
• If a guy came into your house wearing a mask and tried to tell you who to vote for, would you listen to him? Well, that’s exactly what a commercial paid for with secret money does.
• That TV ad you saw last night – the corporations who paid for it are ashamed to even put their names on it. Do you really think you should believe what the ad says?
• If a corporation won’t even put its name on a TV ad it pays millions of dollars for, shouldn’t you assume that every single thing it says is probably a flat-out lie?
• Honest TV ads at least let you know who paid for them. Ads that don’t aren’t honest. It really is that simple.
• A political ad that hides the identity of who paid for it is no better than a nasty comment about a girl written on a barroom toilet wall.

These are just examples. The general point they illustrate is that, to the extent that Democrats can make viewers focus their conscious attention on the ads themselves rather than the messages they communicate, they can significantly reduce the impact of this years’ secret money advertising.

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