Political ads made to sound like news cross a line

Nov 5, 2012

I heard a political ad for radio this week that really got me angry.

OK…sure…I’m probably not alone in that.

But I wasn’t angry because I agree or disagreed with the position taken, or because the ad was misleading or an outright fabrication.

I’m used to “pants on fire” statements in political ads and even expect it. 

What bothered me about this particular ad was that it was produced to sound exactly like a news story. A news story that’s close enough to being possible that many listeners could be easily fooled.

The ad starts with stereotypical, AM-radio, news music underneath a generic male news reader saying this:

“Well, Michigan drivers can get ready for more pain at the pump this holiday season, Governor Rick Snyder signing into law today his gas tax hike, giving Michigan the highest taxes on gasoline in the entire nation. Despite widespread public opposition the, uh, controversial measure passed the state House by the narrowest of margins: a single vote.”

The music then shifts to a more upbeat, light jazz sound with a different announcer saying this:

“It doesn’t have to happen this way. On November 6th vote ‘yes’ on Prop 5 to protect Michigan taxpayers from unnecessary tax hikes like Governor Snyder’s new tax on gasoline. Currently politicians can raise taxes with any vote over 50 percent. Proposal 5 would make it harder to raise taxes by requiring two-thirds support of the legislature or a vote of the people for tax hikes. Last year politicians raised taxes on middle-class families and senior citizens. This year they want to raise taxes on gasoline. On November 6th you can help decide Michigan’s future. There are no do overs. Vote ‘yes’ on two-thirds.”

You may or may not agree with a Constitutional Amendment requiring a legislative super-majority to raise taxes. It would be inappropriate for me to share my view.

But – as a newsperson, I hate this ad.

It sounds so much like a real news story that a listener could be confused into thinking this actually happened. (It hasn’t.)

Even the second half of the ad continues the confusion when it claims Prop 5 will stop “unnecessary tax hikes like Governor Snyder’s new tax on gasoline.”

Many listeners might wonder if they just heard a news story, or if the ad is using an old news story that they missed, or at the very least, if gas taxes did go up because of one vote.

The ad is perfectly legal. Campaign ads often try to create credibility by showing headlines from newspapers or placing video clips of anchors and reporters in the ads without permission, presenting them as if they are endorsements.

(NBC News Chief Steve Capus criticized that practice during a speech at this year’s Edward R. Murrow Awards gala in New York.)

This probably doesn’t matter if operate a station that plays pop hits and the only news is what you steal from TMZ.

But if you are a radio station that produces local news, I think you risk damaging your own credibility with your audience if you air an ad like this.

You are allowed to say no.

While there is a “no censorship” provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act that prohibits telling a political candidate what they can or cannot say (in their own voice) in political ads, it doesn’t apply to third party ads produced by PACS, labor unions, ballot initiative supporters, etc.

Stations can tell the producers of political ads that they won’t accept ads that sound like newscasts or news stories.

The RTDNA Code of Ethics is (unfortunately) silent on this issue, but the SPJ Code clearly states news outlets should, “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

This ad blurs the line very well.

As a journalist or even a news director, the decision whether or not to approve and air this political ad is probably not remotely yours.

It’s also very unlikely that your GM or sales manager is going to agree to come to the news department to get political ads approved, especially if the check has cleared on pre-paid buys.

The solution is to have a conversation about this before it is an issue.

Once the political campaign season is over, suggest to your sales manager or GM the possibility of this policy:

“Political advertisements cannot mimic news headlines in design, tone, third person sentence structure or topic.”

Look, I get it, they’re just political ads, and your audience is probably cynical enough not to believe everything that’s in them.

But do you really want to give them the idea that they should treat the news stories they hear on your station the same way?