Friday, September 03, 2004

Manufacturing consent, indeed...

Thanks again to those offering opinions on Harper v. Canada, and on election spending restrictions in general.

Jass has a long but intelligent and well-sourced screed in the comments that does a good job of finding what I consider some common ground, namely:
  • It's reasonable for the SCC to find that citizens have a right to meaningful participation in elections, beyond voting and/or running
  • Advertising, on the whole, works
When he gets to the wood, though, I am less convinced. He says spending restrictions are reasonable: Not because hearing the same ad over and over manipulates or oppresses individuals into voting for a particular candidate, but because you never get to hear any other ads. One complaint I have not heard from our southern neighbours over the past months is anyone saying they can't get their message out because the big guys are hogging all the media. (If someone else has, please let me know).

Also on advertising, I think it requires acknowledgement that, besides "selling your product", ads are about getting your message out, i.e. informing, and that can work both ways. The pickup truck with the best gas mileage advertises this loudly, in an effort to appeal to truck buyers who place a high priority on mileage. But if I'm looking for a truck to pull a large horse trailer over hilly terrain every weekend, I don't want that, I want a big-ass gas-guzzler that will get the job done. And as such, the ads will effective dissuade me from considering this truck.

Isn't it reasonable to look at political advertising this way? Furthermore, we accept that advertising works, otherwise it wouldn't exist -- but that doesn't prove that all advertising works, nor does it mean that more advertising is always more effective. Tiny local used-car dealers often advertise, because despite the fact that the big dealers have massive TV and glossy print campaigns, they find it worthwhile for getting out their message.

If I were negotiating with Jass on a more satisfactory resolution to this issue, though, I'd probably shake hands with him on his conclusion - that the limits need to be much higher. Essentially, like most bad ideas, speech restriction is a lot more palatable when it's watered down.

In response to a couple of Greg's comments, I think it's important to note that this debate is in no way partisan. This is not a left-right issue. I would probably argue that most of our large media is a bit too locked onto Liberal-defined "Canadian values", but I have certainly heard the opposite argument from the left (wasn't Alexa McDonough musing about the need for a CBC-style government newspaper last year?). It doesn't take a wild imagination to envision a political climate where most Conservatives are happy to have everything filtered through the media, and the left are crying for a voice. (Kevin Taft? Raj Pannu?)

At any rate, it is truly strange to see the argument, coming from the left, that we should be happy with having our political debates filtered through large media.

I also invite you to consider the following. Let's say that the Ford Motor Company supports the Liberals, and wants to see them elected. They're willing to spend a million bucks. Which of the following is preferable?
  • Donate $1M to the leadership campaign of the guy who's going to be Liberal leader when the election is called
  • Donate $3k to every Liberal candidate
  • Buy an interest in some newspapers and exert some editorial control
  • Run a $1M ad election ad campaign saying "Ford supports the Liberals"
I believe that the last option is the most open, transparent, and democratic. It's also the only option that's illegal.


At 5:48 a.m., Blogger Greg said...

Aldini, I am not necessarily all that happy about the "filter" but it is preferable to what they have going on in the U.S. right now. I know, I know, the left has this obsession with the U.S. (call me typical ;) ), but can you really say that "Swift Boaters for Truth" or Moveon advance political discourse? At least with the parties controlling the advertising we can reward or punish their message at the polls. They can be held to some sort of account. It is not perfect, I know, but consider that the third parties are accountable to no one, save their interest groups.

Also, what I don't want is for the parties to set up dummy groups so they can engage in smear campaigns with built in plausible deniability. At least with our system, there can be no doubt who is doing the smearing. The voters then, can pass judgement on whether those tactics are acceptable. It is imperfect, but I think it is better than the alternative.

At 9:30 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right. Not only is the last part of my post the weakest, but I overstate the conclusion, and then I go and italicize it to boot.

I probably should have said something along the lines of " . . . because it makes it more difficult to hear other ads".

Having said that, I'm sticking behind my assertion that, other things being equal, more advertising is more effective than less advertising. The "other things being equal" is what makes it so difficult, even impossible, to quantify the effects of advertising. It depends on the product/message, the style of ad, frequency, market placement, etc.

You bet tiny, local used-car dealers find their one ad worthwhile for getting out their message - but I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts if you offered them extra advertising for the same price they would jump all over it. Why? Because they know that more ads gives them a better chance of reaching more people. "Coke" isn't the most recognized word on the planet for nothing.

Your truck example is a good one, but it is also pretty simple. Because most people already recognize the relationship between fuel efficiency and power, the Power truck ads implicity tell us about their fuel efficiency and vice versa. But not all issues are as familiar, and in these situations I'd like to be able to hear the pros and cons directly from people who study this stuff for a living.

In any case, I'll glady accept your compromise of higher limits - and would actually rather have no limits than the current ones. It seems to me that the current limits made the problem worse, rather than better.

- Jass


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