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"Story of Stuff" vs "Citizens United"

Via the Story of Stuff's Facebook feed, I got a request to blow 40 minutes of my (admittedly copious) free time watching a selection of YouTube videos that came out after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that legislated from the bench that corporations have a First Amendment guaranteed right to spend as much money as they want on political campaign advertising at all times, including in the last few days before an election. I had nothing better to do, so I figured what the heck, as much value as Anne Leonard has donated to my life, I can spare her 40 minutes.

As I start to write this, I'm about halfway through ... and I feel my brain liquefying and running out of my ears.

And I'll tell you why: here are about a dozen or more supposed experts on the subject, both in favor of and against the Citizens United decision, and after almost half an hour of talking nobody's talking about the real issue here. They're talking about straw men like censorship, or alleged buying of votes in exchange for campaign donations, and they're not talking about the only vote that has been bought by corporations:

Yours.

The elephant in the living room that nobody wants to talk about is the fact that the second most powerful decider of every election that's been held in this country since I was a child in the early 1960s is the 15 second broadcast television advertisement. And the most powerful decider (the basic likability of the candidate, their ability to seem like nice people when in public) is not one that's at stake here.

Now, if you're reading this blog entry, the odds are that you're not actually one of the people I'm talking about. On the other hand, if you're actually reading this blog entry, the odds are just as good that you feel like you have little or no voice in our elections, that you've been frustrated for your entire life by the fact that the voters who matter, the voters who decide the election, seem to be making their decision as to who to vote for in total ignorance of even the basic facts about the parties, about the candidates, about the policies being advocated. And you're right. In every statewide or federal election since the 1960s, the most reliable predictor of which candidate will win is which candidate was able to place the largest number of 15 second television advertisements. Period.

Sure, some ads do more harm than good, and some candidates have a hard time looking good in their ads, and some can never get it right. And once or twice per decade, somewhere in America, there have been gifted politicians who've won the old fashioned way, without depending on saturation bombing campaigns of TV ads. But probably in excess of 90% of the people who show up at the polling places on election day based their entire collective impression of each candidate off of nothing but 15 second campaign TV ads. As long as that remains true, then running campaign television ads is like taking swings at a pinata full of ill-informed voters to see who can knock the most of them out of it. Only the tiny handful of candidates who are so inept at swinging at the pinata that no matter how many swings they take they can't hit it, and only the even tinier handful of candidates who are so good at swinging at the pinata that they only need one swing, are exempt from this basic math: the person who gets the most swings at the pinata is the one who'll get the candy.

The result is not a Congress or a statehouse or a White House that can be bought. The result is 50 statehouses, a Congress, and a White House who don't need to be bought, because all of the candidates who were even willing to consider occasionally voting against the interests of the Fortune 500 and the Forbes 400* were massively out-spent on 15-second broadcast television advertisements. Out of any given pool of candidates, the one or two that the wealthiest individuals and the wealthiest corporations in the world personally trust to see the world their way will be given 9 or 10 chances to puff themselves up, 9 or 10 chances to smear mud on the other guy, for every 1 chance that any of the less-reliably pro-corporation candidates get, and study after study has shown that with enough repetition, you can convince almost anybody of almost anything.

By the time I got to the end of this essay, the videos were done, and still, nobody had said word one about this simple fact: almost the only form of political activity that has mattered since the 1960s is the running of 15-second broadcast television political campaign advertisements, and those are (a) prohibitively expensive and (b) to some extent, auctioned.

I love Anne Leonard's videos to date, and I wish everybody in America would watch them. But I can't get past this fact: before she made "The Story of Stuff" and its sequels like "The Story of Bottled Water" and "The Story of Cap and Trade" and "The Story of Cosmetics," she spent her entire adult lifetime to date studying the materials economy. By comparison, she's spent mere months studying American electoral politics; I don't really have a whole lot of confidence that when her next video comes out, it'll reflect the same level of insight as what she brought to the extraction to production to sale to consumption to disposal economy.


* P.S. It was in the news, yesterday, that over 40 million Americans are now living in poverty. There are only 400 people on the Forbes 400 list. Even with one hundred thousand poor people's votes for every one ultra-rich person's vote, the ultra-rich people's preferred candidates win every election. As my old friend the_geoffrey used to say, "Coincidence? Or ancient astronauts?"

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Comments

( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
teflonspyder
Sep. 17th, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC)
So if you want to make a significant change in national government policy you've got to come into it with an absolutely unholy amount of financial backing. The Paulsies tried that last election, but even knowing what to do they just couldn't hold a candle to the real players. Cash-to-enthusiasm only converts in the one direction as far as elections are concerned.

Also you really nailed it with the 15-second ads; even persons with strong media presence prior to a run haven't been able to make a dent without commercial support.
pope_guilty
Sep. 27th, 2010 08:52 am (UTC)
It didn't help that Ron Paul is unfiltered batshit crazy.
teflonspyder
Sep. 27th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
"Unelectable" is such a strong word. If corporate interests suddenly decided that having a total madman at the helm was in their best interests I suspect that we'd quite suddenly and without much pretext find ourselves considering the finer points and presidential merits of rambling froth-lipped gynecologists with more aggressively inappropriate affections for gold than a horde of sexually dysfunctional leprechauns.
mikazo
Sep. 17th, 2010 09:48 pm (UTC)
I don't wish to change the original subject, but do you suppose that alternative voting would change any of this? In Minneapolis now, you can vote for three candidates in order of preference. The point is apparently to support voting for third-party candidates. Perhaps people would be more inclined to vote in a manner less influenced by corporate advertising if they could put their favorite corporate candidate as their second choice instead of only being able to vote for him or her?
bradhicks
Sep. 17th, 2010 10:48 pm (UTC)
As long as the conversation is driven by 15 second sound-bites, and which sound-bites a decisive number of the voters believe are determined by the rate of repetition, how could that affect the outcome? Once in a very rare while it might get a candidate out of the primaries and to the nomination who was less corporate funded, but what then stops the corporations and the hyper-rich from picking the friendlier (to them) candidate of the three and smearing the other two, or the other six, 9 times an hour for all four hours of television a night the average voter watches?
peristaltor
Sep. 18th, 2010 05:13 pm (UTC)
Actually, mikazo has a valid point. In most American elections, there are only two viable candidates, usually members of the corporate funded major parties. This enables candidates to "go negative" quickly, once the two candidates have been selected. Most of those 15 second spots are effective because they are attack ads. People remember negative information more effectively than positive.

In instant-runoff elections, though, this dynamic doesn't work. Negative attack ads work when the advertiser only has one target. With multiple targets, this strategy backfires, since the attacker has too many challengers to attack. The viewer gets the idea that the attacker is too negative, and has no understanding of the attacker's positive policies.

We saw this happen in Seattle during the last mayoral election. The incumbent hardly ran a primary re-election campaign at all until the last minute. He then calculated very badly, attacking who the polls at the moment showed him to be the only viable challenger in the primary. People were so disgusted at these ads that they voted only the main challenger and an underdog to the "top two" main election, meaning a two-term mayor didn't even get to run. The underdog won, probably because he had stayed out of the primary's negative sling-fest.

In a top-two election, people often have to hold their nose and vote for the lesser of two evils rather than the candidate of their choice. In instant runoff elections, there are two many candidates running for negative campaigning to work, negating the power of the 15 second spot, and allowing voters to express their actual choices in order of preference.

It doesn't completely negate the effect you note in your OP -- the Overton Window, Repetition Effect and Source Amnesia still have power -- but it does go a long way.
jonathankorman
Sep. 17th, 2010 09:56 pm (UTC)
This unhappy observation reminds me of an old favourite: Teresa Neilsen Hayden's essay Common Fraud which contains the horrifying observation that deceiving us has become an industrial process.
captain_swing
Sep. 18th, 2010 01:24 am (UTC)
Interesting links. They remind me of the the point Phil Agre constantly repeated on his Red Rock Eater mailing list; that properly debunking slick industrial sophistry requires substantially more time and effort than its consumption.
jonathankorman
Sep. 20th, 2010 04:04 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'm a great fan of Agre. His essay “What is conservatism and what is wrong with it?” is indispensible.
tacky_tramp
Sep. 17th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
This is part of my starry-eyed motivation for going into education: increasing media literacy may help average people be less susceptible to advertising manipulation, and more able to make thoughtful political decisions based on the facts and their values and priorities. But that's about as long-term a goal as turning public opinion away from unfettered campaign spending, and it would encounter just as much resistance.
peristaltor
Sep. 17th, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
. . . the most reliable predictor of which candidate will win is which candidate was able to place the largest number of 15 second television advertisements. Period.

While I don't doubt it at all, I've never seen it stated more boldly. Do you by any chance have a source to back that assertion?
snowcalla
Sep. 18th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
With the advent of TiVo and other such tools (such as streaming TV from internet), I doubt this is the case any longer, if it was to begin with. Especially with younger vewers (under 50), people tape shows, or watch them on the internet, and skip the commercials. I work in advertising sales and let me tell you, my friends in broadcast ad sales are unhappy campers.

This isn't to say that TV (and other advertising) doesn't have an effect on who people vote for. It certainly does! But when people are asked what influences their opinion the most - Friends and family - by about 90%. Advertising is down around the 20-50% (depending on medium) with TV ads being nearer the 20% mark and a candidate's official website closer to 50%. News reports are at about 70%.
peristaltor
Sep. 18th, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC)
Interesting points, but I question the validity of polls that ask people to state their influences. To many studies have shown that there are strong influences on people that these people simply don't recognize.

And I am overjoyed to be a part of the process undermining television ad revenues. To hear your "friends in broadcast ad sales are unhappy campers" fills me with satisfaction. (Not because I don't like your friends -- I don't even know them -- but because I have for years recognized that the power they have over the country has been too negative and pernicious.)

Though I hate the Tivo corporation with a burning passion -- they disabled the function that allows me to actually skip ads in 15 second blocks, forcing me to scan them, something that gives the ads some residual influence -- I'll continue to use that device. It has it's benefits.
krinndnz
Sep. 18th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't credit those statistics, because they ask for a high level of self-awareness. We humans are really, really, really, really, really bad at self-awareness. 90% of people prefer to believe that their friends and family influence their opinions most. I think you can count on that having nothing to do with reality, and it attempts to measure something that can't be directly measured (thoughts).
westrider
Sep. 18th, 2010 02:14 am (UTC)
Here in Washington State, because we've got Citizen's Initiatives on the Ballot, every Voting Household gets sent a packet with an overview and brief pro- and con- statements on these Initiatives.

Since they're sending out the packet anyhow, the Elections Commission (I think that's who puts these out) also includes a brief statement from every Candidate running for Office in that Election. These range from a quarter-page or less for Municipal Positions, up to a full page for Presidential Candidates.

I've long maintained that they should make these packets standard nationwide, and then simply ban any other form of Political Advertising. Candidates get their couple of paragraphs to a page to make their point, and that's it.

Probably totally unfeasible, but it seems like it might be worth considering.
simulated_knave
Sep. 18th, 2010 04:16 am (UTC)
That's...that's beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
peristaltor
Sep. 18th, 2010 05:23 pm (UTC)
Also from Washington, I can't tell you how amused The Wife and I are at the ramblings of some of the marginal candidates. Really, haven't these people considered at least asking a friend with some education to proof read their statements?

I didn't know these packets weren't universal across the country. Interesting. Explains a lot.
westrider
Sep. 18th, 2010 05:53 pm (UTC)
As far as I know, those packets mostly are only sent out in States with Citizen's Initiatives or something similar on the Ballot. There might be a few other States as well, but they're not Nation-wide.

Goodspaceguy and that one dude from Tacoma (I'm blanking on his name right now) were particularly amusing this time around.

My all time favorite, though, was in the 2000 Elections, when someone running for something Port Angeles said that his goal was to help the city make the transition into the 20th Century ;)
krinndnz
Sep. 18th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
California has them, and I like them. Especially because of my feelings about text versus other media. The dynamics of lying are different in text - it's not exactly harder to lie in text, but most people interact with text in a way that makes it harder to lie to them than lying to them in video or audio. It's a more abstract mode of thinking.

You can still fool all of the people some of the time in text, but I'll take it over video and audio for this context.
westrider
Sep. 18th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
California has a Citizen's Initiative-type system, too, doesn't it? You call 'em Propositions or something, though, right?

I'm definitely with you on the preference for Text. With the possible exception of Comics (which is kind of a bastard medium incorporating Text), it's definitely my favourite medium, in large part because that abstraction does make you think more about what you're taking in than Audio or Video do.
krinndnz
Sep. 18th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
McCloud's trilogy is right there on my shelf.
Yes, the Propositions. Which have plenty of problems, but I don't count the text explanations among them. The state constitution is mostly Propositions at this point.


Also, I prefer to think of comics as a Magnificent Bastard medium. I mean, it's got Alan Moore! :D
westrider
Sep. 18th, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
Re: McCloud's trilogy is right there on my shelf.
A Magnificent Bastard Medium. I'm gonna have to steal that one.

It's got Warren Ellis, too, don't forget.
kimchalister
Sep. 18th, 2010 06:32 am (UTC)
Well, my partner tells me that television is dying. Not fast enough....
silveradept
Sep. 18th, 2010 06:21 pm (UTC)
Perhaps this is my jaded media-savvy talking, but that seems pretty obvious from where I'm sitting. Which is probably the point - to most people, the ones likely to be influenced by that kind of thing, this kind of knowledge would be a surprise to them.

And then they'd deny it was true. "I'm an informed voter! I make decisions based on issues, not campaign spots. I'm reading and watching and I'm media-savvy! I watch a little CNN with my Fox (or with my MSNBC, depending.) I'm informed!"
bradhicks
Sep. 18th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
Yeah. One of the biggest lies that the American people tell themselves, in order to get through their day with any self-respect, is "advertising doesn't work on me."
porysski
Sep. 19th, 2010 03:01 am (UTC)
It might work on me if I saw it, but that's why we have things like AdBlockPlus. What are these "ads" people speak of?
siege
Sep. 19th, 2010 02:26 pm (UTC)
Advertising does indeed have an effect on me. Sadly, most of the time -- in fact, almost all the time -- they're selling something I don't want.
teflonspyder
Sep. 19th, 2010 06:19 pm (UTC)
It's always sobering/nauseating when I catch myself wishing targeted ads were a little more accurately targeted. If this sidebar blurb were just a little more finely tuned to me as a consumer, I wouldn't even notice the attempt to sell me something I don't need!

I'd just buy it without thinking, or possibly just think it had been my idea.
naath
Sep. 20th, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)
Heh, I'm on ravelry which is social networking for knitters - all the ads are for *knitting stuff*. My bank balance does not thank me... (the stash is happy). Most TV ads don't influence me much, at least... I haven't bought anything I've seen on TV for ages (I buy, er, knitting stuff).

Fortunately in the UK we have strict campaign finance laws that regulate a)how much people may donate and b)how much parties are allowed to spend on what, when. So each major party gets the *same* advertising time on TV (of course they get themselves onto other TV shows too).
pingback_bot
Sep. 19th, 2010 11:55 am (UTC)
Sitting on this one for far too long - 16-18 September 2010
User silveradept referenced to your post from Sitting on this one for far too long - 16-18 September 2010 saying: [...] the zone targeted by an atomic explosion, a bank vault may actually protect you from the initial blast. Meaning that the Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith may not be entirely fiction. Hiding in the refrigerator, however, is still right out.

Edwin Newman, long time correspondent for NBC news, arrives in the Dead Pool at 91 years of age.

Also, since most of your are Internet-savvy, check out the explanation of several myths of copyright. Especially for the mash-up artists in here, it's worth a look.

Out in the world today, The United Nations has indicated that it may be sending a special inspection to Syria to detemine the truth of that country's nuclear ambitions. Iran came to the defense of Syria, accusing the UN of acting as Israeli pawns in taking false allegations seriously.

Senator Cornyn continues to push for the Justice Department to show that the states are actually in compliance with the laws regarding active servicepeople being able to vote in elections in their home states. Setting aside the validity of his challenge, as disenfranchisement should be stomped out everywhere it is, I wonder if this big push isn't concidental with the fact that we have significant numbers of people overseas that could influence elections if their votes get back in time to be counted.

One hiker home, two more to go, with the possibility that the other hikers might be used as chips to trade Iranians rather than to let them out on their own.

So, the Pope's going out on a tour. Remember, this is the Pope that, as a cardinal, worked against the defrocking of a priest that was convicted of abusing children, delaying his dismissal for almost six years after conviction. Now, as Pope, he's apologetic the church fathers didn't take appropriate measures fast enough - in this context, it sound like he's apologizing that the cover-ups didn't come faster and weren't effective enough. In his remarks in Scotland, to the Queen, the Pontiff decided to disavow the Christianity of Adolf Hitler and complain that atheists are forcing their views on the rest of us and diminishing us all as a result.

Domestically, a pertussis epidemic has claimed nine children so far, with the root cause likely being a lack of vaccinations. Nine children have died from a preventable disease. And there is no sound science to indicate that vaccinations are somehow responsible for anything other than keeping children from dying from preventable diseases.

Comedian Rush Limbaugh commits the first error of middle school research in broadcasting untrue material on Wikipedia without making independent confirmation first. This is the stuff the librarians drill into your head as Reseach 001, Rush - how do you expect anyone to take you seriously after a basic blunder like that?

...then agaaain...considering that the most accurate indicator of how an election turns out is how many television campaign ads are run [...]
pingback_bot
Sep. 19th, 2010 11:56 am (UTC)
Sitting on this one for far too long - 16-18 September 2010
User silveradept referenced to your post from Sitting on this one for far too long - 16-18 September 2010 saying: [...] the zone targeted by an atomic explosion, a bank vault may actually protect you from the initial blast. Meaning that the Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith may not be entirely fiction. Hiding in the refrigerator, however, is still right out.

Edwin Newman, long time correspondent for NBC news, arrives in the Dead Pool at 91 years of age.

Also, since most of your are Internet-savvy, check out the explanation of several myths of copyright. Especially for the mash-up artists in here, it's worth a look.

Out in the world today, The United Nations has indicated that it may be sending a special inspection to Syria to detemine the truth of that country's nuclear ambitions. Iran came to the defense of Syria, accusing the UN of acting as Israeli pawns in taking false allegations seriously.

Senator Cornyn continues to push for the Justice Department to show that the states are actually in compliance with the laws regarding active servicepeople being able to vote in elections in their home states. Setting aside the validity of his challenge, as disenfranchisement should be stomped out everywhere it is, I wonder if this big push isn't concidental with the fact that we have significant numbers of people overseas that could influence elections if their votes get back in time to be counted.

One hiker home, two more to go, with the possibility that the other hikers might be used as chips to trade Iranians rather than to let them out on their own.

So, the Pope's going out on a tour. Remember, this is the Pope that, as a cardinal, worked against the defrocking of a priest that was convicted of abusing children, delaying his dismissal for almost six years after conviction. Now, as Pope, he's apologetic the church fathers didn't take appropriate measures fast enough - in this context, it sound like he's apologizing that the cover-ups didn't come faster and weren't effective enough. In his remarks in Scotland, to the Queen, the Pontiff decided to disavow the Christianity of Adolf Hitler and complain that atheists are forcing their views on the rest of us and diminishing us all as a result.

Domestically, a pertussis epidemic has claimed nine children so far, with the root cause likely being a lack of vaccinations. Nine children have died from a preventable disease. And there is no sound science to indicate that vaccinations are somehow responsible for anything other than keeping children from dying from preventable diseases.

Comedian Rush Limbaugh commits the first error of middle school research in broadcasting untrue material on Wikipedia without making independent confirmation first. This is the stuff the librarians drill into your head as Reseach 001, Rush - how do you expect anyone to take you seriously after a basic blunder like that?

...then agaaain...considering that the most accurate indicator of how an election turns out is how many television campaign ads are run [...]
pingback_bot
Sep. 19th, 2010 12:01 pm (UTC)
Sitting on this one for far too long - 16-18 September 2010
User silveradept referenced to your post from Sitting on this one for far too long - 16-18 September 2010 saying: [...] the zone targeted by an atomic explosion, a bank vault may actually protect you from the initial blast. Meaning that the Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith may not be entirely fiction. Hiding in the refrigerator, however, is still right out.

Edwin Newman, long time correspondent for NBC news, arrives in the Dead Pool at 91 years of age.

Also, since most of your are Internet-savvy, check out the explanation of several myths of copyright. Especially for the mash-up artists in here, it's worth a look.

Out in the world today, The United Nations has indicated that it may be sending a special inspection to Syria to detemine the truth of that country's nuclear ambitions. Iran came to the defense of Syria, accusing the UN of acting as Israeli pawns in taking false allegations seriously.

Senator Cornyn continues to push for the Justice Department to show that the states are actually in compliance with the laws regarding active servicepeople being able to vote in elections in their home states. Setting aside the validity of his challenge, as disenfranchisement should be stomped out everywhere it is, I wonder if this big push isn't concidental with the fact that we have significant numbers of people overseas that could influence elections if their votes get back in time to be counted.

One hiker home, two more to go, with the possibility that the other hikers might be used as chips to trade Iranians rather than to let them out on their own.

So, the Pope's going out on a tour. Remember, this is the Pope that, as a cardinal, worked against the defrocking of a priest that was convicted of abusing children, delaying his dismissal for almost six years after conviction. Now, as Pope, he's apologetic the church fathers didn't take appropriate measures fast enough - in this context, it sound like he's apologizing that the cover-ups didn't come faster and weren't effective enough. In his remarks in Scotland, to the Queen, the Pontiff decided to disavow the Christianity of Adolf Hitler and complain that atheists are forcing their views on the rest of us and diminishing us all as a result.

Domestically, a pertussis epidemic has claimed nine children so far, with the root cause likely being a lack of vaccinations. Nine children have died from a preventable disease. And there is no sound science to indicate that vaccinations are somehow responsible for anything other than keeping children from dying from preventable diseases.

Comedian Rush Limbaugh commits the first error of middle school research in broadcasting untrue material on Wikipedia without making independent confirmation first. This is the stuff the librarians drill into your head as Reseach 001, Rush - how do you expect anyone to take you seriously after a basic blunder like that?

...then agaaain...considering that the most accurate indicator of how an election turns out is how many television campaign ads are run [...]
pingback_bot
Sep. 27th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
No title
User seekingferret referenced to your post from No title saying: [...] -This post makes a fantastic and important point: http://bradhicks.livejournal.com/443399.html [...]
subnumine
Oct. 18th, 2010 12:36 am (UTC)
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there's no occasion to,
-Humbert Wolfe

You are adding the American politician to the British journalist; the Supreme Court has been in that category for yeas.

( 34 comments — Leave a comment )