Politics and the Media   /   Summer 2008   /    Articles

Thirty-Second Democracy: Campaign Advertising and American Elections

Paul Freedman

While children sleep, a phone rings in the middle of the night. There is danger afoot, perhaps a national security crisis. Whom will you choose to pick up that phone? Can America risk making the wrong choice? It is a frightening prospect.

Indeed, fear is the message of Hillary Clinton’s now famous “red phone” ad, which aired during the 2008 Texas Democratic primary and has spawned countless blog entries and YouTube parodies. (To set the record straight: the phone was actually white and the sleeping girl in the ad’s ten-year-old file footage is now a teenager who supports Barack Obama.) Afraid, according to the Clinton campaign, is precisely what you should be at the prospect of an Obama presidential candidacy. Obama, the Clinton camp informs us, is simply too inexperienced to be trusted at the helm of the ship of state, particularly when it comes to national security.

Fear, condemnation, pride, and patriotism have long been the stuff of campaign advertising. These simplistic messages—thirty-second calls to reject or accept one or another candidate—dominate our television screens during election season, intruding upon the local news, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and other television shows with alarming frequency as Election Day nears. An estimated $800 million was spent on presidential advertising alone in 2004, out of an estimated $1.7 billion in total political advertising. In 2008, some estimates project ad spending as high as $3 billion. Already by April 22, 2008 (the date of the closely contested Pennsylvania primary), the two major Democratic candidates had spent an estimated $100 million on ads ($68 million by Obama, $43 million by Clinton). Political ads are everywhere there is a competitive election. And they are the subject of near-universal disapprobation and scorn.

Americans love to hate political ads (or at least to tell pollsters they do). Campaign ads, according to voters and pundits alike, are too negative, inattentive to the issues, and serve only to alienate, frustrate, and ultimately demobilize potential voters. Put simply, campaign ads are nasty, brutish, and short. Political advertising, according to the critics, debases democratic discourse and undermines political participation.

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