October 28th, 2000

Hit the Button: Disgusted by Political TV Ads? Turn 'em Off

By Gary Ruskin
Commercial Alert

As the 2000 election campaign heated up, millions braced for the barrage of obnoxious political ads that started to fill our homes. They felt a sense of hopelessness about the political morass and corruption and wondered if there was something—anything—they could do to clean it up.

Well, there is. We don’t have to wait for the politicians to take action. We can do it tonight, in our own homes—without spending a penny or losing a moment of time. (In fact, we’ll gain time.)

It’s so simple. We can just turn off our televisions. Put them in the basement or the closet. Perhaps even throw them out.

It’s do-it-ourselves campaign finance reform. Here’s how it works:

The tube is a prime culprit in the corruption of American politics. The high cost of the TV ads drives the money orgy that has swallowed Washington.

“Television advertising is the greatest single force increasing the price of political campaigns,” `The Washington Post’ says. Enormous sums are needed to buy TV ads, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a national, prime-time 30-second spot.

The money comes mainly from corporations and wealthy special interests, in exchange for political influence. Former Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung said it best: “[T]he White House is like a subway—you have to put in coins to open the gates.”

This year’s elections will be the most expensive in history. No matter who wins, fat-cat donors will have more influence than ever, and ordinary citizens less.

It looks like Congress won’t solve the problem that it itself helped to create, so it’s time to take the matter into our own hands.

It would be so easy. Turn off the TV.

If a 30-second spot appears and no one’s watching it, then does it really appear? If fewer people watch, then TV will lose its influence in the political arena, and politicians will spend less money on it. Who is going to spend a fortune to run TV ads that no one sees?

The campaign money might get spent on other things. But the other things don’t cost as much. So campaigns would become less expensive, and the role of money would become smaller. This could make a big difference in the quality of our government. It could bring other benefits, too.

If we watch less TV, we’ll avoid the nasty political ads that have become the common currency of political campaigns. People often forget that the ugliness of politics today is largely a phenomenon of television. In person, politicians usually try to be as nice as Mr. Rogers. That’s why they hire actors to do the dirty work in the ads—they want to keep their own images clean. To stop watching would be a good way to tell politicians that we are fed up with the mudslinging and character assassination, and the hired media hit men. The whole tenor of the campaign season might improve.

The best part is that there’s virtually nothing to lose. Network television is nothing to write home about. Most local news is pathetic and getting worse. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the saying goes.

The campaign “news” has been squeezed into the same pattern. In 1968, the average presidential campaign sound bite on network news was 43 seconds. In 1996 election, it dropped to 8.2 seconds. Third-graders communicate in longer segments than that.

Regrettably, it isn’t likely to get much better. Every technology has predispositions—“The medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan said—and the predisposition of television is to dumb down whatever it touches. The tube must “suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business,” professor Neil Postman observes in his book `Amusing Ourselves to Death.’

So to smart-up political campaigns, we need to turn off the thing that is doing the most to dumb them down. Might as well read a newspaper instead.

When we disengage from the forces that are wrecking our politics, we render them impotent. We can do this ourselves. By cleaning up our politics, we’d improve our lives as well.

Gary Ruskin is director of Commercial Alert, a group founded by Ralph Nader that opposes the excesses of commercialism, advertising and marketing.


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