Two weeks ago, an attack ad from conservative super PAC Campaign for American Values aired throughout North Carolina.
The ad shows a woman reading a newspaper with an alarmed expression on her face, talking with her husband. “Obama is trying to force gay marriage on this country. Marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s not the change I voted for,” she says. Her husband replies, “That’s not the change I voted for either.” The woman then asks, “What can we do?” Her husband’s response: “We can vote for someone with values.” The ad then fades into a “Vote Romney/Ryan” banner.
This is a blatant propaganda play by Campaign for American Values, meant only to reinforce a political talking point.
Propaganda can be defined, in this context, as an advertisement meant to influence the opinion of voters through the use of an emotional appeal, and without any tangible and verifiable facts. Campaign ads shouldn’t be reduced to smearing propaganda — they should inform the viewer of pertinent election issues, ideas or potential policies that will help the viewer cast a well-informed vote.
In this particular ad, the exchange between the woman and her husband — complete with ominous music playing in the background — makes for an ad so absurd that it is difficult to believe that anyone, regardless of their stance on gay marriage, would be convinced by it. This ad was not created as an effort to inform people about President Barack Obama’s stance on gay marriage, but rather as a means to deliver a critical message of Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Enforcing the image of Romney as the candidate with values implies that this is what sets him apart from Obama. Therefore, this campaign ad is not intended to inform viewers of anything relevant, but is instead used as a means to solidify a biased image in the minds of the viewers.
There is something fundamentally wrong with that. Since the Citizens United case in 2010, in which the Supreme Court ruled that unlimited corporate and union spending in political campaigns is protected under the First Amendment, America has seen an incredible increase in advertisements from third party organizations unaffiliated with official presidential campaigns. Because they are not officially connected with the campaigns, these advertisements are not subject to the same rules and regulations that the Federal Election Commission applies to official ads.
Though legally acknowledged as free speech, advertisements of this nature more appropriately fall under the category of propaganda, which is not permissible on public airwaves as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. Therefore, it is within the power of the FCC to designate campaign advertisements as fact, not propaganda, because they are broadcasting over publicly owned airwaves. In addition, the FEC is in the position to assert authority over super PACs and as such, these organizations should be reporting to the FEC. Pressure should be applied to the FCC and FEC to apply restrictions on the types of advertisements that super PACs are permitted to run.
This would curb the number of inane and vacuous propaganda ads. Perhaps then, political ads might have a shred of sense in them — whether it’s hard facts about the economy or direct quotes about each candidate’s policies — and actually provide useful information to voters.
Matt Tinoco is a freshman majoring in international relations.