How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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It seems quite common to describe political advertising as though it is a form of warfare against voters.   According to the Dominion Post, for example, the government’s decision not to reintroduce spending limits on independent political expenditure means that voters are “set to be bombarded by record levels of advertising during the next election.”  The Public Service Association warns of lobby groups “bombarding voters with advertising.”

This language reflects reasonably widespread pessimism about the social value of political advertisements.  But Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker argues cogently that this attitude towards political advertising is misguided:

“Part of the hostility to campaign contributions reflects a general hostility to advertising found among intellectuals in all spheres, including many economists. This hostility greatly underestimates the importance of advertising in providing information, in helping new products or candidates to compete against the establishment, and in entertaining and providing other satisfactions to those affected, be they consumers or voters.”

Some research suggests that political advertisements play a role in improving voter awareness.  Less political advertising probably wouldn’t mean that most voters engage in detailed research of candidates’ positions.  More likely, a reduction in political advertising would probably just make other factors more significant, like name recognition and pre-existing partisan allegiances.

Negative advertising (or “attack ads”) can play a helpful role too.  Graeme Edgeler explains this pretty well in a post over at Kiwiblog:

“Most parties campaign in platitudes: Vote for a Brighter Future; Vote for Freedom; Vote for a Fair Share for all NZers, Vote for Me etc. I actually quite like being told what their real policies are. If the Greens are planning on introducing high carbon taxes, and National is planning on cutting the minimum wage then I want to know. And if they’re not going to tell me in their advertising, I’d quite like someone else to.”

Finally, if we care about political participation – one of the stated purposes of the Electoral Finance Act 2007 and one of the Ministry of Justice’s guiding principles in the current project – then it’s important to consider the unintended consequences of restricting political advertising for public participation in the political process.  As Judge Posner explains, “It is odd to think that the fewer political advertisements there are, the greater the amount of political participation will be.  That is like thinking that curtailing commercial advertising would result in more consumption.” (2006) Yale Law Journal 1699 at 1705.

So perhaps we should be a whole lot more relaxed about political advertising (even when it involves the Demon Sheep ).

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2 Responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

  1. stephenwhittington Says:

    That FCINO Ad is truly awesome.

  2. No, yes, no. Will parallel campaigners be allowed to publish positive advertisements? « Today's Dissent Says:

    […] Today's Dissent « How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb […]

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