As Political Ads Distort The Truth, Floridians Tune Out

Nov 2, 2012

FSU Communications Prof. Davis Houck in his office
Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU-FM

Like voters in every swing state during this election cycle, Floridians have been barraged with a near-constant stream of political ads on TV, radio, online, in the mailbox and on the phone. Fact-checkers often find that the ads distort truths. But political advertising experts say, most voters are tuning them out anyway.

As Election Day draws near, poll after poll shows Florida as a toss-up in the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Bill Nelson and challenger Connie Mack. And the closer the race, the more your TV-watching time is filled with “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message" and “I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.”

It leaves many voters feeling like the little girl from Colorado, whose tear-streaked face, caught on video, has been making the rounds in social media. Between sobs, she says, "I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Rominey."

And for Florida voters who have already decided who they’re voting for, or for the more than 3 million who have already cast ballots, Florida State University Professor Davis Houck said, “They’re hitting the mute button. Or they’re just, they’re going to the mailbox and throwing a bunch of stuff in the garbage pretty quickly.”

Houck teaches political communications classes. He says, campaigns spend millions upon millions on ads in just a few states, like Florida, but they’re not really trying to target most of us.

"I mean, the candidates aren’t speaking to the partisans," he said.

In Florida, out of almost 12 million registered voters, just over a fifth are unaffiliated with a political party. And those are the people the ad dollars are trying to reach.

“They’re undecided. They’re independent. And they want to see the evidence. And ideally they want to see who has the better evidence," he said.

Finding the evidence behind every claim the ads make can be tricky, though, because, as long as video advertising has been around, master communicators have been playing on fears and twisting truths. It’s nothing new. Houck points to the classic 1964 spot produced by President Lyndon Johnson.

“We hear the girl picking the daisy and we hear the countdown. All of this was playing on the fear that Barry Goldwater was some crazy right-wing zealot who was going to unleash nukes on Russia," he said.

Today, campaign ads often make much more straightforward charges against the challenger. Take the Florida ad by the Obama campaign against Romney that warns Romney will make “catastrophic cuts to education."

Houck's take: “So, it’s this quick snapshot that is giving us a really partial picture, and that partial picture gives us a really partial truth. And what we don’t see is a whole lot of other stuff that we probably need to see.”

He says, that’s where fact-checking websites like the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact come in. That site rated Obama’s claim that Romney would make catastrophic cuts to education "half-true," because, they say, Romney has said he’d make large budget cuts, and education funding could be part of them, but Romney hasn’t actually been that specific about what he’d cut.

Houck said, “The implication is, he’s gonna have to cut somewhere. So, what hot-button issue can we talk about in a political ad? Well, it’s gonna have to be education.”

To explore the complex nuances behind political ad claims, people used to depend largely on word of mouth and network news, he said. And the process was slow. Now the Internet allows people to see the fact-checks almost instantly.

“What we now have is the ability to contextualize facts that really benefit our political discourse, so that we can see, OK, this is kind of a gray area," he said.

And the fact-checkers themselves have become part of the political discourse. Like, in a Mitt Romney television ad attacking Obama, which says, "Fact checkers confirm that his attacks on Mitt Romney are false.”

For a candidate who runs an ad that’s rated blatantly false, he said, social scientists have proven they can only get away with so much.

"And if you go negative too far, especially without facts, without some sort of basis in reality, it’s going to come back to hurt you," he said.

But he said, the candidates get somewhat of a buffer nowadays, as groups outside the campaigns are spending much more on ads than the actual campaigns do.

All of which keeps the fact-checkers pretty busy.