Commercial Politics

By Quinton Skinner
Professor Barbara Allen’s award-winning book examines how campaign advertising affects civil discourse.

Illustration by Jonathan ReeseIllustration by Jonathan Reese

Honesty in civil discourse is essential to a healthy democracy. Over the past decade, however, American politics and the media it generates have become increasingly mendacious and combative, leading citizens to distrust their government and one another. More recently, the emergence of “alternative facts” and competing narratives has deepened the divide, making compromise exceedingly difficult and consensus all but impossible.

One of the fundamental reasons for this descent is chronicled in Truth in Advertising? Lies in Political Advertising and How They Affect the Electorate, coauthored by University of Exeter political science professor Daniel Stevens and Barbara Allen, Carleton’s James Woodward Strong Professor of Political Science and the Liberal Arts. The data-driven book is grounded in research Allen began to gather when she and her students analyzed the way political ads were depicted and deciphered on national news broadcasts. That study led to the examination of how over 700 campaign spots aired during the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections affected the behavior of prospective voters.

The data reveal why the phrase “truth in advertising,” is not only oxymoronic, it’s ever more irrelevant. Allen’s research shows that, during the last few presidential contests, for example, Republican-leaning voters in particular were increasingly distrustful of the news media. As a result, when it’s reported that parts of a political ad are false, they are reluctant to believe the revelation, especially if it contradicts their core beliefs.

Allen and her student researchers also found a correlation between the level of misinformation in an ad and the number of disjointed images, quick edits, and distracting sounds contained within. “The more disinformation there is in an advertisement, the more weird sound stuff there is to distract you,” Allen says. For instance, when people get too many aural cues, “the counterinformation goes in more deeply. It bypasses all your filters.”

A growing body of evidence suggests that even when a claim is debunked, people on both sides of the aisle continue to base decisions on what they know not to be true, indicating that a lie that has entered the mind can’t always be dislodged by reason. This is one reason the falsehoods and half truths that were previously reserved for heated campaigns have seeped into our broader political and (un)civil discourse. This trend, Allen argues, is crippling.

“There’s a possibility that misinformation is helping to create a crisis mentality in America,” she says. “There’s a real sense of powerlessness that comes along with a crisis mentality. It can lead to turning power over to someone who promises to fix the crisis—and that’s part of the problem, too.”

The final chapter of Truth in Advertising, which was recently awarded the American Politics Group’s 2019 Richard E. Neustadt Book Prize in London, advocates for exploring regulations of political speech that traffics in overt falsehoods. While this call to action comes with an acknowledgment that regulating political speech is a slippery slope, Allen argues that effective, incremental steps are both possible and necessary. Especially because intentional deception threatens to discourage young people from both voting and running for office.

In other words, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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