I haven’t posted much recently (except for the 1-year piece) because I spent a week visiting a close friend interstate. While it wasn’t my intention to be inactive and not write, it was good to take a break, and it let me have time to read and actually finish reading a book and get back into another university reading, Introduction to Political Communication by Brian McNair. After reading the chapter on political advertising, my stance only consolidates – political advertising should not exist.
Political advertising has existed for some time, but it was in the 50’s when it became a ‘science’ of its own through the medium of mass television. The evolution of this practice, first used by Eisenhower in the US, has matched the evolution of the technologies used to propagate it. Long gone are the days where political advertising was limited to the TV sphere – politicians and parties could advertise themselves 24/7 through the internet and social media. While TV appearances and ads are still used (and effective), social media has become the outlet of choice for a large number of people (just look at Sanders and Trump in the 2016 campaign).
But there are so many issues with political advertising, starting with the very concept’s existence. Even if you take the most optimistic view of it – that such ads are meant to inform the public about policies and views of individuals or parties – it implies that the voting population are mere consumers of the political process, not active participants as they should be in a proper democracy. Politics is not some market where the masses can be persuaded one brand of parasite is preferable to another (well, it is, but it shouldn’t be). A population of consumers is at the mercy of whatever is fed to them, a worrying fact that has left many (myself included) disenfranchised and alienated from the political sphere.
Politicians who spend more time creating an image, either a positive one of themselves or a negative one of their opponents, pay less attention to the actual desires and thoughts of their constituents. The endgame is not what benefits the consumers, but that they consume their product, their brand of politics – the voters don’t even have to know what that brand is or how it affects them, so long as they fall victim to it.
Some of the central pillars of markets I hear touted are competition and demand. Neither of these things, in a fair and just world, should exist when it comes to governance or the needs of the people. Take the idea of the housing market. Shelter, a home to live in, is a human right in my view. But by definition, a housing market calls for demand, so by default there will always be people striving to own their own right to a home, and those who will never do so, either ending up homeless or forever being subject to a landlord. People with the means to do so will consume more than they require, leading to the system we have now where some people have multiple properties and others are locked out of the market entirely – and it’s not the avocado toast many of us can’t exactly afford either, to bring back an old reference.
The same logic can be applied to healthcare too, with even more extreme ramifications. To treat healthcare as a market, with profit as a motive and patients as consumers, implies that there will be people who suffer because they are locked out of a system designed to benefit those who can afford the appropriate service. The American healthcare system, as I have said before, is not a model we should be looking to for inspiration – and yet that is exactly what our own Coalition government is considering, down to allowing employers to dictate private health cover.
Bringing this back to the political landscape, the implication is that there will be those who will never be represented and who will never reach positions of power. In countries like the US, those with money can simply buy airtime and advertising space, giving disproportionate influence to those who can pay for it, and locking out those who are unable to attain the funds required to even make a dent. In the UK, the so-called ‘fairer’ system of being unable to purchase TV airtime – parties are given a set amount of free airtime – does not work, in my view. Airtime is proportionate to the number of candidates a party has running, which makes it incredibly difficult for smaller parties or independents to get their messages out there, essentially monopolising the power of the two major parties.
All of this could be very, very slightly be forgiven if the advertising in question was substantive and detailed the policy positions held by the politicians who made them, but that is hardly ever the case. As the election in Australia earlier this year (and even the 2016 campaign) showed, ads that are dedicated to demonising the opposition have much more power than those that simply state policy stances. Further, even those that did discuss actual policy were not exactly substantive as they were nothing more than self-congratulatory videos. Advertising created by political parties is, by default, spun in a way that makes their activities seem positive, irrespective of the facts or their actual motives.
Political advertising is flawed, even if you ignore its market-based assumptions of the voter-consumer, due to the fact that the goal is never to inform, but to persuade. It’s nothing more than an expensive PR production that takes away all context and nuance that political topics require and replaces it with soundbites and slogans. It makes it incredibly easy to home in on a message and amaze the masses, but that is not democracy – that is propaganda in a well-tailored suit.
Liked this? Read Reject the Media Narrative – It’s Undermining Our Democracy
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