Political campaigning has been a staple of the American presidential process since the beginning of our democracy. Advertising in politics, however, is like conventional advertising on steroids. Candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars every four years to hammer their message into the minds of the American people to ultimately win their vote. It’s not uncommon for American political campaigns to take negative approaches that openly attack competing candidates; a strategy that is far less accepted in commercial advertising. This year’s candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have proved particularly controversial, and not surprisingly, have been campaigning uber-aggressively.
Even though the end goal of a political campaign is fundamentally the same as any other advertising campaign, the strategy and implementation are vastly different. Are the enormous budgets and cutthroat messaging effective? And more importantly, are they ethical?
According to the Washington Post, nearly $900 million was spent on TV advertising alone for the 2012 presidential race, and 2016 figures are expected to top those of 2012. We know that as various digital media channels become more dominant, the effectiveness of TV advertisements (which is where a large sum of political ads are placed) could be declining. In August of last year, National Public Radio (NPR) published an article stating that TV advertisements reach up to 87% of American adults over 18. But does that hold true today? According to other research, 42% of viewers tune out political ads on television and only 25% use TV commercials as a source of political news. The fact of the matter is that I could rattle off statistics all day long and still not come to a conclusive answer. Do political ads work? Are they worth the money? The answer is unclear.
Regardless of the effectiveness of political advertising and campaigning, the ethics behind them are probably what’s more important. Is it ethical for Donald Trump to repeatedly refer to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary?” Is it ethical for Hillary Clinton to suggest Donald Trump has ties to white supremacy groups like the KKK? Standard moral guidelines would probably say no, so why is it common practice in American politics? According to the Huffington Post, “voters tend to be risk-averse and prefer candidates who are perceived to have fewer negative attributes. It is much easier for a candidate to create doubts about his opponent than it is for him to prove his own self-worth.” Negative campaigning is believed to be effective because most Americans have little knowledge of politics, and the uninformed are more easily influenced.
Negative advertising in itself is not inherently unethical (think about the Apple vs. Macintosh commercials), but it seems lines are sometimes crossed during election season. As an advertiser, you may be tempted to hop on the presidential bandwagon with your marketing; social media, specifically. There are tons of new memes, gifs, and other political media produced every day (some of which are hilarious regardless of your political affiliation), but it’s best to leave your brand out of the political debate completely. Bottom line, you WILL offend someone if you market your business in a partial way, and inevitably harm your brand image. Rule of thumb- your business should take a neutral political standpoint, or better yet, no standpoint at all.