Tired of political ads on TV? Three reasons they’re not going away

(“I just want to warn you that when I wrote this song, I was watching TV during the 2022 midterm campaigns so…”)

Avoiding political advertising this time of year is like trying to stay dry in a hurricane: Despite your best efforts, it isn’t going to happen. Candidates, political action committees, outside organizations, issue-oriented groups and anyone else who has a bone to pick will flood your mailboxes, newspapers, inbox, digital devices, fax machines, billboards and more with a torrent of advertising geared toward shifting the vote total just a smidge more in favor of their candidate.

If you think this year is worse than most, you’re probably right. This piece from NPR outlines the way in which both major parties are pounding the heck out of us with paid speech at a cost and speed unlike any previous midterm election. It has gotten so bad that I’m practically begging my TV to show me Tom Selleck hawking a reverse mortgage or out-of-control Xentrex ads.

Anything but another frickin’ ad about the radical, unhinged, wrong-for-us, out-of-touch, elitist, self-serving, corrupt candidate that will ruin my life, destroy our country and probably get me hooked on Xentrex…

Despite a seemingly universal disdain for deluge of political ads (especially negative ones), they’re not going away for three simple reasons:

In some cases, the law says the ads must run

We might not want to see U.S. senate candidates and individuals seeking office in the U.S. House of Representatives on our TV every 16 seconds, but federal law sure does. Section 312(a)(7)  of the Federal Communications Act states that a broadcast license can be revoked if a station does not provide legally qualified candidates for federal office with access to the airwaves. The stations are required to “permit the purchase of reasonable amounts of time for use of a broadcasting  station” to reach the public.

This only covers the federal offices, which means that this only applies to people running for the positions of president, vice president, U.S. senator and U.S. representative. It also doesn’t state what accounts for a “reasonable amount” of advertising time, thereby allowing candidates to stretch the bounds of reasonability like it’s a Stretch Armstrong doll on speed…

Beyond that, Section 315 of the communications act provides what are known as equal time rules or equal time doctrine. This simply means that if a station allows one legally qualified candidate for an office access to its facilities, it must provide an equal opportunity for the other candidates for that office. So, if I’m running for Waushara County Dog Catcher and I am allowed to buy a 30-second spot on the local ABC affiliate for $500, any other legally qualified candidate for that office must be able to get the same amount of time for the same price on that station.

Now, the station can decide it doesn’t want to get involved in this nonsense, and thus make the statement that it won’t allow me, or any other candidate for that office to run ads. That’s fine. Also, the station that allowed me to run that ad doesn’t have to go looking for all the other candidates and tell them they have this opportunity. However, if one of my many fine opponents comes to ABC and wants to run a 30-second ad for $500, that station is duty-bound to do it.

Here in Wisconsin, and I’m sure we’re not alone, the broadcast outlets have been stepping forward to make the case as to why they HAVE TO run these ads. They are also explaining why they can’t censor the political ads to eliminate all the nastiness that goes into them:

Can television stations not air an ad because it is violent or has harsh language in it?

Matt Rothschild: “The Federal Communications Act of 1934 was so worried that stations were going to be censoring political candidates that they said essentially, you can’t do anything about the content except run it.”

Technically, the stations could sit out everything except for the federal races, although they often pitch the advertising for those non-federal offices as being tied to the “general public interest standards” that govern their license. Still, that’s not the main reason why broadcast stations run these things…


Political ads make serious money for the stations:

As much as the public tends to hate election season, it’s practically a lottery win for broadcasters. The law dictates that stations must charge candidates equal amounts for equal time, so they can’t charge me $500 for my Dog Catcher campaign ad and then charge my opponent $20,000 for the same type of ad. The law also dictates that political candidates must be charged the lowest rate available for advertising.

That said, they more than make up for it in total volume. Experts expect total election ad spending to hit almost $10 billion this cycle, with advertising experts foresee serious financial windfalls for broadcasters this election cycle:

Kantar Media Intelligences Inc. expects TV stations to realize some $4.2 billion in political ad revenue, though cable, digital and connected TV will also benefit from increased political outlays, according to Steve Passwaiter, Kantar’s vice president and general manager for North America.

It’s actually tough to figure out how much money actually will go into this election until everything is said and done. If you have ever bid on something through eBay, you know why: The pace can be stable and normal for the majority of the auction time, but when the last few seconds come around, everyone who is desperate to win will jump in with insane final bids and jack the total expenditure through the roof. The estimated amount spent on ads of all kinds, or even just in broadcasting ads, for this campaign season might vary widely based on who is counting, what they’re counting and when they did their projections, but they all say the same thing: People are pouring money into this like they’re trying to drown democracy with buckets full of cash.

And TV folks are bemoaning the loss of accuracy and integrity among advertisers all the way to the bank.

Still, people wouldn’t be offloading cargo ships full of Benjamins if it weren’t for the final reason the ads aren’t going away…


Political advertising works in many distinct ways:

So many people say they hate political advertising that it’s a wonder it actually exists. Then again, to be fair, so many people say that pornography is abhorrent, terrible and should never be viewed, but PornHub is in the top 10 most visited websites, with an average of almost 3 billion views a month…

In short, what we say and what we experience are usually two different things.

Researchers have found that political advertising has the ability to shape turnout, with positive ads driving higher rates of it and negative ads suppressing it. Negative advertising tends to “stick” more with potential voters, other scholars have noted, with additional researchers finding that negative framing of issues tends to motivate people.

Some analyses across multiple election cycles have found mixed overall results in terms of how much ALL ads impact voting and to what degree positive or negative ads creates specific outcomes. However, a vast swath of research shows that the more politicians beat on us with their ads, the more likely we are to do SOMETHING in relation to that race, whether we like it or not.

The one saving grace? Election Day is just two weeks away…


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