Perilli: Campaign Ads Bad for Politics, Good for Democracy

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


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Political ads help foster democracy, but at the price of favoring the best-funded candidates, believes John Perilli.

The campaigns have mustered their ground troops. Now begins the aerial assault.

By the end of the summer, you will know just how many people Treasurer Gina Raimondo has saved, how many plans Brett Smiley has for Providence, and how many dollars Council President Michael Solomon helped trim off our capital city’s structural deficit. But will you know how much each of those candidates paid for their TV ads, and what they are doing to our democracy?

Campaign advertising poses a strange conundrum for our political system. Ads are undoubtedly informative, and are held to high standards by journalists and fact-checkers. But their presence is so ubiquitous and expected that a failure to run ads will almost certainly doom a large campaign, keeping scrappy outsiders with popular support but not enough money out of the political process. Is this the price we pay for more information about the candidates that do run? It’s a difficult question to answer, but one we must try to as we face four more months of political promises, punches and promotions on the silver screen.

Priced Out

A bit of perspective to start: According to, out of every dollar you donate to a political campaign, around fifty-nine cents will go towards producing and buying space for advertisements. Even the least expensive advertising slots for thirty second TV ads go for five figures. Over $2 million has already been spent on TV commercials for the Rhode Island Governor’s race, and in the 2012 cycle nationwide, over $760 million was spent on various forms of advertising and media.

Surely there are things more expensive, but compared to what most of us could earn in a year, these are astronomical numbers. If you or I wanted to run for a large political office––say, Congress––we would have to raise many times our annual income just to stand a chance, or else make the long climb through local offices. This seems antithetical to the democratic spirit of American elections, where at least in theory anyone with good ideas and popular support can win the day. Obviously, we are a far ways fallen from Eden, but our system seems to deliberately favor those who can either fund themselves or find others to float them. Expensive political ads only reinforce this.

Not only, though, do political ads keep campaigns expensive, they also keep them dull and conventional. There seems to be a pernicious “rite-of-passage” effect with political ads––you aren’t a real campaign until you take to TV or the radio. It is nearly impossible anymore to run an ad-free campaign, one which might have a truly revolutionary field strategy or message, because ads have been so burnt into our perception of politics.

Who is this person? I haven’t seen them on TV.

These are but a few of the chief evils of political advertising. They keep outsiders out, insiders in, and make everyone else complacent. But despite this, advertising is not universally bad. Like the commercials themselves, there are negatives alongside some important positives.

The More You Know

Imagine how much you would know about a candidate if you had never met them nor seen anything about them. Voting would be a coin toss, and there would be at least a fifty percent chance that you would make an uninformed decision.

For people who don’t regularly follow politics, this is what election day feels like for every race on the ballot. They don’t watch the interviews, hear the soundbites, or read the news clips. But one day, when they’re watching their show of choice, a political ad comes on, and they might find out something they didn’t. As long as they paid attention for that thirty seconds to a minute, their vote is by nature more informed than it was before.

This is the beauty of political advertising: it is intentionally targeted at people who might otherwise not follow politics. This, of course, ought to be the case with any good ad campaign, but political ads are selling something a bit more important.

You can watch news, you can watch cable, you can watch literally anything but politics, and ads will still find you. In this way, political advertising is an important buttress of our democracy. It increases voter information, even among those marginally engaged, and creates a truly public space for political debate. Around ninety-seven percent of American households own a TV. For those who own a set but don’t watch, the frequency of political ads on the internet is only rising. If anyone still isn’t getting the memo, direct mail is still a frequently used and wide-reaching medium of messaging that is sure to target the rest.

Even if you live under a rock, you can be sure there is some campaign who wants the rock-dwelling constituency’s vote.

Political advertising is a flawed, money-soaked business, but it also helps keep our democracy in place. Maybe you will only see ads from a few candidates, but you will know more about them than you would have known about any candidate in an underfunded field of dozens. So next time you hear a political candidate giving a monologue over dulcet patriotic chords, you might want to lend an ear. You’ll be better informed and your country will be more democratic for it.

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John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a rising senior at Brown University who consults for state and local Democratic candidates. The opinions presented in this piece do not represent the opinions of any organizations John Perilli is affiliated with.


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