The use of the media — advertisements, newspapers, television — in political campaigns enormously impacts how the American people perceive an issue or candidate. Pop culture has a much bigger impact on politics than one would expect — in short, we believe what we see on the television screen. Historical and current events are reduced to a series of sensationalized images and provocative headlines in order to appeal to the common man. French Marxist Theorist Guy Debord writes that in our modern society “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”(2), and politics is certainly no exception. There are several advertising mechanisms that politicians use to influence and manipulate the American people: the creation of fear, the presentation of exaggerated anecdotes, and the branding of the politician’s identity. This is done by prioritizing and distorting certain issues while presenting the politician as a savior and the only one who can fix them.
During the Civil Rights Movement and The War on Crime launch, Richard Nixon used T.V. advertisements depicting crime and violence to invoke fear in the American population in order to garner support for his “law and order” regime. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about one advertisement in particular that “began with frightening music accompanied by flashing images of protestors, bloodied victims and violence” (46). It shows scenes of war, protest, and guns intermingled with white boys in cable-knit sweaters covered in blood, alongside naked mannequins in a pile of rubble. The horror movie fever dream-esque footage used in this advertisement manipulates the viewer into feeling an overwhelming sense of doom and fear in America. However, the frenzied imagery contrasts with Nixon’s speech (slow and sermonly, almost godlike), which assures the spectator that if you give him your vote “we shall have order in the United States” (Nixon Victory Committee) and all the scary visions will disappear. We can see this political propaganda championed not only by advertisements but also by popular news sources, which serve as a tool for politicians to use exaggerated anecdotes for shock value and to gain supporters. When Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, one of his main focuses was the War on Drugs–specifically on crack cocaine–as an effort to villainize and criminalize black inner-city communities. He utilized the media to “sensationalize the emergence of crack cocaine” in American cities (Alexander 49). This media offensive wasn’t just some private advertisements paid for by his campaign. It was supported by “unbiased” news outlets: “As far as New York media was concerned, crack was the hottest combat reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War” (Alexander 51), with provocative New York Times headlines like “CRACK’S DESTRUCTIVE SPRINT ACROSS AMERICA” (Massing).
Even supposedly trusted news sources supported Reagan’s racist campaign because it was a hot profit-producing story. Real facts got manipulated and exaggerated in an effort to produce a narrative that was compelling and exciting for the masses–one that resembled popular entertainment. For instance, the notion of “the crack baby” was completely blown out of proportion by the media. A 1980s USA Today news article reads, “Medical authorities are witnessing explosive growth in the number of newborn babies hooked on prescription painkillers, innocent victims of their mother’s addictions” (Ledger). News outlets jumped on the story and popularized the notion that there was a looming epidemic of babies being born addicted to crack that would suffer from severe cognitive issues and permanently impact the next generation. Even the scientists themselves got caught up in the media frenzy and “went beyond the data from incomplete research and contributed to the hype with inaccurate comments” (Lewis). Although, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, prenatal exposure to crack cocaine actually has little to no effect on the long-term development of the child (“Does Crack Use”), the “crack baby” stereotype was used to justify the arrest and imprisonment of many mothers, who were charged with child abuse, drug dealing, and murder. Ronald Reagan used this media offensive to win the election and pass “federal legislation associated with the War on Drugs, including deployment of mandatory minimum sentences, [that] had significant bipartisan support” (Kilgore).
Today, in 2023, the exploitation of emotion through political ads continues. However, it manipulates something less obvious than crazy crime stories: the identity of the politician themselves. In November of 2022, Republican billionaire Rick Caruso ran against Democrat Karen Bass for Los Angeles city Major. In August, at the beginning of the race, Bass was 12 points ahead in the polls. However, as the November 8th election day approached, that gap rapidly narrowed, with Bass only 3 points ahead of Caruso, which was within the poll’s margin of error (“Karen Bass’ lead over Rick Caruso ”). This was in large part due to Caruso’s massive campaign spending, 13 times more than Bass’s, and his “advertising onslaught on TV, radio, and digital platforms [that] [was] expected to exceed $53 million” (Rainy). In one of Caruso’s final ads, he is pictured in front of a local Boyle Heights barbershop telling a sappy story with sentimental music and black and white photographs of his immigrant family floating across the screen, while he claims that he is a proud Democrat. It is clear that he had realized that the people of Los Angeles aren’t interested in their leader being a billionaire real estate developer, so he had switched tactics and portrayed himself, through his multi-million dollar advertising campaign, as a working-class immigrant Democrat. By claiming these aspects of his identity, Caruso attempted to appear relatable to the latinx voter demographic, which comprises 48% of Los Angeles. Although in the end, Karen Bass did win the Los Angeles mayoral race by around 10% of the vote, the efficacy of Rick Caruso’s ads proved to be a significant force to contend with.
All three of these advertisement mechanisms do one essential thing: present images that appeal to the spectator’s emotions rather than reason. Advertising to sell people the latest $3.99 McDonald’s burger is one thing, but when ads control the voting booth, the outcome can be devastating. Advertisements dictate what laws are passed, who we respect and who we don’t, the values and morals held by our government, and to put it bluntly, the future of our country.
Advertisement, of course, isn’t an equal playing field; the more money a politician or group has, the more air-time it can afford and the more it can ingrain itself into the minds of the masses. This phenomenon can potentially produce oligarchical fascism. (There’s a reason why advertising paid for by politicians is illegal in most of Europe.) Robert Soucy writes that fascist groups, like the Nazis, “exploit[ed] principles borrowed from modern American advertising… to create patriotic fervor and to encourage fanatic enthusiasm for the fascist cause” (Soucy). With the continued increase of political advertisements since the invention of the Internet and the recent rise of billionaire politicians, it is clear that America’s democracy is at risk.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2012.
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Black & Red, 1967.
“Does Crack Use during Pregnancy Cause ‘Crack Babies’?” Drug Policy Alliance, https://drugpolicy.org/drug-facts/cocaine/pregnancy-crack-babies.
Fox 11 Los Angeles. “Rick Caruso Releases New AD Ahead of Mayoral Debate.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 Sept. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpppRyiNqYA.
“Karen Bass’ Lead over Rick Caruso Shrinks as La Mayoral Election Campaign Enters Final Weeks: Poll.” ABC7 Los Angeles, 4 Oct. 2022, https://abc7.com/karen-bass-rick-caruso-mayor-campaign/12290947/.
Kilgore, Ed. “Trump Is Reviving the Disgraceful Legacy of ‘Law-and-Order’ Politics.” Intelligencer, Intelligencer, 3 June 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/trump-law-and-order-politics-nixon-reagan.html.
Ledger, Donna. “Surge in Babies Addicted to Drugs.” USA Today.
Lewis, David C. “Stop Perpetuating the ‘Crack Baby’ Myth.” Brown University, https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2003-04/03-099.html.
Massing, Michael. “Crack’s Destructive Sprint Across America.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Oct. 1989, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/01/magazine/crack-s-destructive-sprint-across-america.html.
McArdle, Terence. “The ‘Law and Order’ Campaign That Won Richard Nixon the White House 50 Years Ago.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Nov. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/11/05/law-order-campaign-that-won-richard-nixon-white-house-years-ago/.
Nixon Victory Committee. 1968.
Rainy, James, and Julia Wick. “Caruso Spending $53 Million on Relentless Ad War against Bass, a 13-1 Advantage.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 28 Oct. 2022, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-28/caruso-bass-advertising-la-mayor-race.
Soucy, Robert. “Fascism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/fascism. Accessed 30 October 2022.