October 12, 2007
How to spot political ads powered only by hot air.
In this article we examine two examples of what we call "fact-free" advertising, which we see in abundance. These ads seek to associate the candidate with a string of positive words and images but are void of specifics. Voters should beware.
We have chosen an example from Republican Mitt Romney that is full of words such as “families,” “values,” “patriotic,” “strength” and “innovation.” Who could be against any of those? Romney is also squarely against “waste in the federal government,” but who isn't? And what does he consider "waste?" He doesn't say.
Our example from Democratic candidate John Edwards also pushes the "strength" and "patriotism" buttons, showing that vacuous words are a bipartisan tactic. Edwards also speaks loftily of making America "the country of the 21st century," whatever that means. He says he'd "lift families out of poverty" and "strengthen the middle class" but doesn't say how, or define what he means by "middle class." He says, "We know what needs to be done," but doesn't say what that is.
These ads are examples of what propaganda experts called “glittering generalities.” They are both appealing and vague, involving the listener emotionally while allowing the speaker to remain uncommitted. We'd call them misleading, except that they really don't make any factual statements.
The ads do contain what experts call "signaling," giving viewers a general impression that Romney would spend more on the military and Edwards would spend more to help the poor, for example. But for specifics, citizens must look elsewhere. The ads rely on evocative images, stirring music and value-loaded but undefined words to appeal to the heart, not the head.
Update, Oct. 15: The Romney ad is a special case because the campaign chose it as the best of all those submitted by supporters in a "create your own ad" contest. The campaign adopted it as an official campaign spot and began airing it on TV stations in New Hampshire and Iowa on Oct. 3.
The Romney ad is called "Ready for Action," and it uses the word "strong" or "strength" five times in the space of 60 seconds. The Edwards ad is called "Strength of America," and it uses that phrase twice in 30 seconds.
Such positive-sounding terms can mean whatever the listener wants them to mean. The idea of a “strong military,” for instance, is deeply appealing to people who are anxious about national security (“strong” in this case would mean “protective”). It could also appeal to those who believe that the U.S. should be proactive in its military efforts (“strong” would mean “aggressive”). But voters’ interpretations of military strength may not match up with Romney’s. Generic, attractive language allows listeners to project their concerns and beliefs onto the candidate – perhaps inaccurately.
Romney's ad also shows him lauding "a strong economy" and "strong families and values." But what exactly would he do to make them strong? He doesn't say.
For his part, Edwards says "the strength of America" lies in "the American people," to whom he addresses his appeal. But this ad says nothing about how Edwards proposes to "lift families out of poverty" or "strengthen the middle class."
Detecting a Vacuum
What's really being advocated in these pricey TV spots? When Romney calls for a strong economy, ask: "What candidate is calling for a weak economy?" Or a weak family, weak values or a weak military, for that matter? When Edwards says he wants to "strengthen the middle class," ask: "What candidate wants to weaken the middle class?" And how, exactly, would all these things be "strengthened?" These ads and others like them advocate in such broad generalities that they advocate nothing in particular.
Edwards Ad: "Strength of America"
Edwards: Will we make America the country of the 21st century? That depends on all of us. It's not that we don't know what needs to be done. To lift families out of poverty, to strengthen the middle class in this country. We know what needs to be done. The strength of America is not just in the Oval Office, the strength of America is in this room right now. It is the American people, and it’s time for the President of the United States to ask Americans to be patriotic about something other than war. I'm John Edwards and I approve this message.
Edwards says he'd "lift families out of poverty," but how? With welfare payments? By creating jobs?
"Not Completely Empty"
Even hot air has its uses. "These ads do have a lot of meaningless rhetoric but are not completely empty," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor who teaches courses in political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Actually these two ads signal two different sets of priorities. Ask how you would react if Edwards spoke of a 'strong military' or Romney said he'd 'lift families out of poverty.' Romney uses traditional Republican language to signal that he would spend more on defense. Edwards speaks of 'the middle class' to signal that although his policies will address poverty he will focus on middle class needs as well." Prof. Jamieson is director of FactCheck.org's parent organization, the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Also, candidates do not run on bluster alone. Both Romney and Edwards lay out specific plans elsewhere. To strengthen the military, for example, Romney proposes to add at least 100,000 troops to U.S. military forces and to make unspecified "investments" in military "equipment, armament, weapons systems, and strategic defense." And to fight poverty, Edwards favors raising the federal minimum wage to $9.50 per hour (currently $5.85 and scheduled to rise to $7.25 in 2009) and tripling the Earned Income Tax Credit (which provided an estimated $43 billion last year to 22 million low-income workers). But you won't learn those specifics from these fact-free ads. Once you do, you may or may not agree with the specific means the candidates propose to reach their admirable goals.
We're neither criticizing nor endorsing Romney or Edwards, nor anything they are proposing. Our point here is that a great deal of political rhetoric relies on language calculated to be both pleasing and empty. Cautious voters are wise to remember that candidates rely on them to fill in the blanks, sometimes interpreting their ill-defined language as specific promises they never made. If the candidates don’t define their terms, citizens shouldn't try to do it for them. Their ideas about “strength” or “patriotism” may not match the candidate’s. Remember to read the fine print, and avoid making judgments based only on fine-sounding words that could mean anything.
Correction, Oct. 15: The name given by the Romney campaign to its 60-second ad is "Ready for Action." We originally called it "Strength," a name assigned to it informally by our ad-tracking service.
-by Brooks Jackson and Jessica Henig
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