Television commercials may be the most interesting part of the 1980 presidential campaign. Ronald Reagan has admitted that he reads scripts without knowing what they say. George Bush reportedly rushed to a New Hampshire town by car, boarded an airplane, and then got right off so his media people could film his arrival by air. Ted Kennedy's campaign relies upon the endorsement of fictional character Archie Bunker.
Robert Spero in "The Duping of the American Voter" misses such lighter moments and the insights they can inspire, because he is convinced that commercials do nothing less than subvert American democracy. His anger mounts as he moves from dispassionate social scientist to professional advertising executive -- he's the vice president of a major agency -- and finally to the I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I-won't-take-any-more stance of the anchorman in the movie "Network."
Social scientist Spero judges political commercials by government and industry standards set for nonpolitical ads. Since these standards include "satisfactory evidence of the integrity of advertiser" and "evidence to support claims," it comes as no shock that every candidate fails.
Eisnehower took to the airwaves to tell Americans that "if the driver of your school bus runs into a truck, hits a lamppost, drives into a ditch, you don't say his intentions were good. You get a new bus driver." This makes Eisenhower "guilty of nine violations," according to Spero, including "unqualified references to the safety of a product." He similarly indicts JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter. Only losing candidates escape condemanation, presumably on the assumption that Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern never earned the opportunity to demonstrate their true chicanery.
Despite an idyllic view of pre-television days -- "In the era of the railroad whistle-stop . . . crowds could still get close enough to the candidates to challenge the facts and ethics of what they had to say" -- Speros's approach is provocative. LBJ's 1964 commercials are terrifying when held up against his actual intentions in Vietnam. Nor was LBJ uniquely self-serving. "I would make it clear to the Arab countries that if they ever try again to blackmail this nation as they did in 1973 that we would consider an economic declaration of war and not give them any foods," candidate Jimmy Carter declared in a 1976 facial close-up.
Most people have strong opinions about such commercials, and yet the solid data are remarkably scarce. The major study to date is Thomas E. Patterson and Robert D. McClure's "The Unseeing Eye" (1976). They interviewed voters before, during and after the 1972 presidential campaign and concluded that "exposure to televised ads has no effect on voters' images of candidates" and that voters actually learn about the issues from political commercials. "The Duping of the American Voter" explicitly assumes the opposite: that a s presently constructed, television commercials ipso facto deceive ad manipulate. Unfortunately, just as Spero sets the stage for a scholarly debate, his advertising executive persona steps forward to argue that political ads are "the most deceptive, misleading, unfair, and untruthful of all advertising, especially on television." To highlight how politics has contaminated an otherwise clean trade, he cites an ad man who helped Nixon in 1972 and then felt "absolutely crushed and entirely disillusioned" when top presidential aides were indicted. In contrast to the dirty world of vote-seeking, he says [profit-oriented commercials] get on the air that are misleading, deceptive, unfair or false by present standards."
At this point, Spero's arguments lapse into the ridiculous. These standards in which he places so much faith permit commercials whose message is that mouthwash combats loneliness, family happiness comes from baking flour and a car can make you feel good. They are not more honest than the politician claiming he understands unemployment; their dishonesty is simply more sophisticated and further from the surface.
Spero's angry-anchorman voice saves his credibility. He implicitly criticizes all commercials in a devastating comparison between a cola sales pitch and that of the current president. "Carter's role in his own commercials is not unlike that of the soft drink," Spero concludes.
The image of candidate-as-cola arouses his I'm-mad-as-hell passion. Spero praises voters for rising above "an almost continuous mental drubbing throughout most of their lives." Next comes an exhaustive reform agenda that includes elimination of the Electoral College, limiting presidents and senators to one term, "making newspapers less provincial," "ending political theatrics" and "licensing political media specialists."
For those unconvinced that such changes are necessary and realistic, Spero jumps to his feet. "We can kick and yell and demand," he shouts. "And if necessary kick and yell and demand again -- until the dangerous, the dishonest, and the inept are crushed by the anger of public opinion." But it is unlikely the American people will fling open their windows and shout along with him. The mindless reading of scripts, the fake pictures, and the merging of entertainment with facts have fostered -- not public anger -- but a new and little-understood political reality.