Raunder ad

Watching the news: why do we have warnings about prescription ads, but not about political ads

We know that viewership of network news has declined precipitously in recent years, and the intended audience is primarily those who are currently or soon-to-be elderly. The cash-cow business of pharmaceuticals gloms onto this demographic and saturates the NBC, CBS and ABC nightly news programs with legal drugs for sale. Among the biggest pharmaceutical advertisers are Merck, Inc. and Pfizer.

But during political season, which is now becoming almost year-round, political ads also saturate news broadcasts. There is a fundamental difference between the pharmaceutical and political ads. With the drug ads, extensive warnings are provided about the associated risks with the product. This is required by law. With the political ads, no cautionary words are provided, and the danger of mis-use is at least as great as it is with the medications.

It’s a wonder that the medications advertised on TV actually turn a profit. The Food & Drug Administration has established regulations for advertising that require the sponsors to provide disclaimers about the risks involved with the medication. In many cases, this can consume far more time in the commercial than the reasons to ask your physician to prescribe it for you.

For example, below is a commercial for Stelara, a medication to treat the symptoms of Crohn’s Disease. You’ll note that of the 60-seconds in the ad, 32-seconds are devoted to information about associated risks.

This is called Truth in Advertising. It’s worth noting that the Federal Trade Commission has a hand in this, but the FDA has exclusive rights over regulation of prescription medications.  Kudos to progressives in Congress and the White House who spearheaded the establishment of these two important agencies, the Federal Trade Commission in 1914 and the Food and Drug Administration in 1906. They perform essential roles of government, protecting individual citizens from possible excesses by corporations. They work to protect “we the people” from being duped.

But what about the political ads that are almost wall-to-wall during newscasts? There are absolutely no warnings provided about the hazards of purchasing the “product-being-sold” the way there are about pharmaceuticals.

Take a look at this ad for the re-election of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner running for re-election. It is only thirty-eight seconds long, but there are twelve unsubstantiated charges within it. With the harried voice-over, the viewer cannot catch his/her breath to even think about what is being said. It’s one jab after another, with no fact-checking whatsoever.

Clearly, we need some regulations of these political ads as we have for pharmaceuticals. Here are several reasons why it makes sense to do so:

  1. Pharmaceuticals are used to protect our health. We are all aware that mistakes happen. With medications, we are talking about life and death. This is why precautions must be taken to protect us from the risks of certain pharmaceuticals.
  2. Key components of the jobs of our political leaders are to protect individual liberties and to promote the “general good” within our society. Just as citizens need honesty in all other forms of advertising, they need it from the political ads to which they are often subjected.
  3. More often than not, political ads are characterized by half-truths, actual lies, distortions, innuendos and personal attacks. What is said about the actual candidate running for office is frequently just a sliver of the real truth. The same holds true with how candidates characterize their opponents.

Television ads are one of the most effective ways for political candidates to reach large audiences. The First Amendment guarantees the right to candidates to openly reach out to constituents. But we also have restrictions on distortion. Currently we are not applying them to political advertising.

Placing restrictions on political advertising is something that can be done with greater ease than many other necessary reforms such as abolishing or neutralizing the Electoral College. Cleaning up the ads should be a primary issue for progressives. Let’s see who steps forward.