Truth in political advertising

One of the readers of my column, Abel Manliclic, raised an interesting point when he wrote to ask if claims made in political advertisements are covered by the same truth standards to which commercial ads are subjected. He then rattled off the incredible achievements that one probable senatorial candidate claims for himself in his political ads. Is there an agency in charge of safeguarding truth in political advertising?

I had not quite thought about this issue until then. All I could tell Abel was that I was sure political advertisements were not under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Council, the industry’s own agency that is in charge of reviewing all commercials shown on Philippine media platforms. Republic Act No. 9006, or the Fair Election Act, gives the Commission on Elections ample regulatory powers over political advertising. That much is clear. But I am not sure if there is an office or task force within the Comelec that explicitly monitors political advertisements, not just to determine if candidates are keeping within their time limits but, more importantly, to ascertain whether they are being truthful in their political ads.

My hunch is that this is not among the Comelec’s top priorities. If Comelec officials do not feel obliged to stop the kind of premature campaigning that has proliferated in the margins of the law, neither would they be inclined to scrutinize the factual assertions being made in political advertisements. If not the Comelec, who then?

In other countries, fact-checking is a regular function of the media. There are people in print and broadcast media who specialize in spotting the most flagrantly false or exaggerated claims made by politicians, be these in their ads or in their unguarded statements. In the United States, for example, this is almost a sport. But what is fascinating is that, because people know better than to expect truth from politics, the object of fact-checking is seldom just to tell the real score. It is rather to satirize, ridicule or to expose the pretentiousness of some politicians who routinely spout such claims.

Since the media in our country are among the biggest earners from political advertising, I honestly do not expect them to take the lead in countering the falsehoods that litter political ads. That task, in my view, might be borne by civil society organizations, particularly those engaged in educating the voting public and in raising the level of political discourse. Such groups need to prove their credibility by transcending partisan lines and by investing in painstaking research to come up with incontrovertible information with which to confront factual claims made in political ads.

Having said this, I am not entirely sure if this is the best way to deal with the insidious side of political advertisements. As any advertising professional might tell us, the whole purpose of any promotional material might be no more than to plant the name of a politician or the brand of a consumer product in the public mind. Audiences themselves take for granted that not everything they read or hear in an advertisement is true. And so any effort to dispute the truth claims of such advertisements might only be counter-productive.

As baffling as this may be, we may find some guidance in Niklas Luhmann’s dissection of the power of advertising in modern society: “After truth comes advertising. Advertising is one of the most puzzling phenomena within the mass media as a whole. How can well-to-do members of society be so stupid as to spend large amounts of money on advertising in order to confirm their belief in the stupidity of others? It is hard not to sing the praises of folly here, but it obviously works, albeit in the form of the self-organization of folly.” (Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media, 2000)

This brings us to a related issue in the current presidential race that we might more usefully observe—namely, how the promoters of the three leading presidential contenders make use of a wide range of advertising techniques to maintain the positive image of their respective principals. “More and more advertising is based nowadays,” writes Luhmann, “on the motives of the people targeted being made unrecognizable. Thus, they will recognize that what they are seeing is advertising, but not how they are being influenced.” The complex techniques that today’s advertising gurus employ usually bypass “the cognitive sphere,” leaving no time or space for questioning, fact-checking, or attentive reflection.

The name of the game is to remind the public of that one particular name that deserves special attention, and to prevent that brand from slipping out of the public’s memory. “Memory, which remembers things but actually prefers to forget them, is continually being reimpregnated.” This process entails the unending interplay between “redundancy” and “variety,” or between familiarity and novelty. The brand “Ducati,” for example, will always be associated with the best in Italian motorcycles. But, every year, the company sees to it that it introduces something “new” and “different” – a faster or unique model—to seed the memory of this iconic marque. In this way, the brand never becomes boring.

The selling of politicians is no different. The continuity of the representation is hardly what is important. Indeed, we may note that advertising pays little attention to “intertextuality.” On the contrary, Luhmann observes, “The law of interruption operates here, in the hope that the memory of what has just been seen will immediately be activated in this way.”

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