Politicians are giving advertising a bad name

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The profession has long had its share of critics, but this political season is making it worse, writes the former agency executive and founder of HonestAds

Seduction cuts many ways. It’s at the heart of the agency world — a good thing. Where else can we get the allure of constant learning, passionate personalities and creative alchemy? That is seductive. (Too bad those clients get in the way, but … I digress.)

Given that the best advertising is focused on finding the "best" truth, you may ask, "Why am I so often on the defensive? Why do I get called out as being part of a disreputable, deceptive, seductive profession?" This happens all the time — by that airline seatmate you never met before, the do-gooder TED-ster, and even your own kids.

This is not going away. Because that negative perception never resonates more than right now … in this off-the-charts election … where we’re hit over the head with an avalanche of deceptive political advertising … in a way that has never existed before.

Ever hear the story of the Republican super PAC that is running ads in Florida, initially reserving $5 million in airtime, to fight against the Republican front-runner (Yep — check the March 3rd New York Times cover story). Now that is a twist. What does it say about advertising?

The irony is that the Florida ads could very well have the opposite effect of what the Republicans are hoping. If you follow the behavioral concept of "motivational reasoning," these ads might cause Trump supporters to dig in their heels even further and be even more staunchly resolute.

OK. Yeah. We know your agency doesn’t do that kind of political advertising and doesn’t even want to — it’s alienating to the staff and to many of your clients. Plus, it’s good to know that your clients can and will pay their bills.

That’s not something the public knows. To the uninitiated, all agencies are the same.

We are not off the hook. Don’t even begin to think that people are not seeing and talking about these over-the-top attack ads. They are. If the ads are not running in your state, they are on the web, being madly exchanged via social and email, and, of course, on every satirical comedy show on TV. Short of pornography or yelling fire in a crowded theatrer, there are few boundaries.

How can these "advertisers" get away with massive and obvious untruths? After all, there are truth-in-advertising laws, courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission, so competitors can sue you for lying. Right! Wrong? That’s the consumer world.

In the political world, there is a whole other truth: It is perfectly legal to lie in political advertising. As interpreted by our Supreme Court, political speech is protected by that little something in our U.S. Constitution called the First Amendment, and its messy concept of "free speech." Just last week, we were reminded of that truth when the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Ohio's False Campaign Speech law. It was ruled unconstitutional. Ohio can go back to the U.S. Supreme Court to appeal.

According to Doug Kellner, co-chairman of The New York State Board of Elections, the state of the law now is that the federal and state governments have very little role in what political candidates can say. There are only three things they can regulate: The prohibition and prosecution of false election speech about the mechanics of voting, such as where to go and when to vote; false campaign speech submitted for official ballot materials. (For example, in New York, the government publishes a campaign guide or "Voter Guide" where the candidate is allowed to insert statements) And if someone says something defamatory about a candidate that they know to be untrue and it is actually damaging, there can be a claim for libel; however, that’s very difficult to prove, and the election is over before it ever goes to court.

Which brings us back around to seduction.

There is an opportunity for the advertising world to come together, much like it did during another American crisis — the crack epidemic back in the mid 80s. The best advertising minds and talent got together and said, let’s do something about this. The Partnership for A Drug Free America was formed.

Don’t think Americans are going to distinguish between what you do in the advertising business and what’s going on now in the political advertising world. History doesn’t count here because there has never been an election like this one. Everyone is out to seduce audiences. You are not immune. You can even be a savior.

Here is the most marvelous opportunity to differentiate the advertising profession, attract the best talent, and get ahead of the blowback that this election is inevitably going to cause. Not to mention — and this is not said lightly — it is an opportunity to help save the American election process and the country from this increasingly embarrassing spectacle.

Why not seduce Americans with an industry campaign about what political advertising can and should be?

You have the unique power, reach, thinking, and creative ability to do this. If not you, who?

Harriett Levin Balkind is a former agency executive and founder of HonestAds.