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Damned Spot: The Truth Behind Factually Challenge Political Ads

It's no substitute for honest debate, but understanding the motives behind disingenuous ads will make you a better citizen.

The 2012 political ad season is about to begin in earnest, and as always, language is the first victim. If you learn how political ad makers do business, however, you can arm yourself with knowledge of the dynamics of the election—specifically, what campaigns are actually worried about in their opponents.

Take, for example, this ad about Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law Professor and consumer advocate running for Senate in Massachusetts:


Warren rose to fame as the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, whose job was to evaluate and audit the infamous TARP bailout deployed by the Bush and Obama administrations to stop the financial crisis. Her criticism helped cement TARP’s image as a program that propped up Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.

But according to this political ad, Warren didn't reveal these problems, she caused them. “Congress had Warren oversee how your tax dollars were spent, bailing out the same banks that helped cause the financial meltdown,” is technically a true statement, but oversee has two meanings—actually directing, and auditing after the fact. Warren, of course, had no role in designing or implementing the TARP program. But that doesn’t matter if you’re trying to beat her in an election.

That ad was made by Republican bogeyman Karl Rove’s so-called “Super PAC,” a political action committee that can receive unlimited corporate donations with very little—wait for it—oversight. Rove, who was President George W. Bush's top political adviser, is a major influence on other Republican operatives, especially his adage to attack opponents' perceived strengths, not their weaknesses. An adviser to Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney captured the mood in a conversation with the New York Times:

“First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business…. Ads are agitprop…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context…. All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

That comment was about an ad that the fact-checking website Politifact awarded its “pants on fire” rating for taking a statement from President Barack Obama out of context completely, making it seem as if he wants to avoid economic issues when in fact the bulk of his recent public appearances have been focused on income inequality and jobs.

Often the most outrageous ads say more about the campaigns that launch them than their targets. Warren has long been an opponent of the banks, so portray her as their catspaw. Obama needs to win on the economy, so make it seem like he’s trying to avoid the subject. If you spot a particularly disingenuous ad, you know it's targeting something the other campaign is worried about. After all, you don’t have to lie if you’re attacking an actual weakness!

While we're talking about Republican ads here, Democrats have put out plenty factually shaky ads, too. You’ve probably seen and disliked Texas Governor Rick Perry’s offensive anti-gay ad, but have you seen the gay baiting ad that Obama campaign manager Jim Messina made when he worked in Montana in 2002? Democrats play this game, too. It's just that their time will come later in the year, during the general election.

If you know the motivations behind the ads, you can recognize the dynamics of the race. That’s no substitute for an honest civic debate, but in the meantime, it’ll help you be a better citizen.

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