Have we scared you enough?

We have from time to time written in this space of the tendency of some political advertising to manipulate, not inform. And that’s what advertising is about — to get the consumer to do something, whether it’s to buy a product, vote for a candidate, or make a call or write a letter. We’re going to be hearing a lot of those commercials in the campaign months ahead. We’ve been hearing one lately on several radio stations — it’s fair that we note this client has bought time from us.

This kind of commercial often offers no facts. They offer assertions that they don’t support. They might even stretch the truth. Sometimes they seek to create fear. They aim for the gut and expect listeners (voters) to forget about using their mind. Here’s the text of the 30-second commercial, which begins with some kind of a sound effect that is identified in the first three words although we don’t know if it’s really the sound the speaker claims it is. The narrator speaks with great urgency — every second counts! Be very afraid. Right now!

“Another wrecking ball from Washington ready to hit Missouri families. An out of control EPA is dictating costly regulations that will destroy more jobs and raise energy costs for Missouri households. Electricity rates will soar. Thousands of jobs will simply go away. How much more can Missouri families take?”

The commercial urges the listener to call a certain elected official and ask that person to “stop the EPA wrecking ball” after which the announcer tells us, “Paid for by Count on Coal.”

Did they scare you enough to make you call that number? Don’t worry about vagueness or lack of specific information. Just do it. Now.

We don’t single out Count on Coal because of its issue. We bring it up because it is an example of what we are going to get more of between now and early November. Perhaps listeners (voters) might profit from turning this commercial into an exercise.

The listener hears, “The EPA is dictating costly regulations.” What are those regulations? The people behind this commercial don’t tell you. Is it really “dictating” or is it only proposing? How much will they cost? That’s not important; just take our word for it, says the organization behind this commercial. Who will pay those costs? Well, we want you to think it’s you, the listener (voter), and we want you to think those costs will be a lot although we don’t come right out and say it. Is there a benefit to these costs? Certainly not to us, say the people behind this commercial whose name will be mentioned at the end without telling you why they want you to do something.

These regulations “will destroy more jobs.” Oh, gosh. We don’t want more jobs destroyed at a time like this, do we? Well, what jobs will be destroyed? That’s beside the point. We say jobs will be destroyed. Believe it. Don’t think about it. Don’t ask. Just believe it. We’ll re-emphasize that point in a few seconds.

These regulations (costly ones, don’t forget) will “raise energy costs for Missouri households.” Forget that investor-owned utilities in Missouri can’t just jack up your rates without making a case before the Public Service Commission where the Public Counsel will represent the listeners (voters). And just how will these regulations increase costs? No time to explain. We said it. You should believe it because we said it.

Let’s make sure you understand that point again. We’re going to emphasize it in case we didn’t raise your anxiety level enough the first time. “Electricity rates will soar.” Soar. Not just go up, as we said in the previous sentence. They will absolutely soar. How much is “soar?” That’s immaterial. Just believe our urgent message that they will “soar.”

“Thousands of jobs will go away.” Make sure you understand that. We said it a few seconds ago, but we want to build on that uncertainty. Oh, goodness. Maybe your job will be one of them. The commercial doesn’t identify what jobs will go away. Maybe some of those jobs should go away. But don’t even think that. Think about the danger of thousands of unidentified jobs in unidentified industries that will just vanish.

And before telling listeners (voters) to take action the announcer asks “How much more can Missouri families take?” Of what?

What have we learned from this commercial? Nothing. All we’ve heard is a series of unsubstantiated claims strung together to scare the listener (voter) into taking action without thinking about who is behind this message or why.

But some people are going to jump right out of their chairs and they’re going to call and tell the person who answers, “You’ve got to stop the EPA. It’s out of control and it wants to make my electric rates soar and it wants to make thousands of jobs go away and I want the EPA to be stopped,” the caller might tell the person who answers the phone. People who answer the phones in office-holders’ offices are supposed to be unfailingly courteous and promise to pass the message along to whomever is the target of the call and thank you for calling. Those people are different from reporters. If we would get a call like this, we’d respond, “What are you talking about?”

“Well, I heard it on the radio that the EPA is out of control and issuing new regulations that will make my electric bill soar and might take away my job,” the caller might respond.

“What makes you think that?” the reporter would ask.

“He said it on the radio,” says the caller.

“Who said it on the radio?” the reporter would ask.

“The announcer.”

“Where did he get his information?” we would inquire.


“Where did he get his information?”

“I don’t know. But it has to be true. You know how the EPA is. They’re out to ruin the country.”

“How do you know?”

“Everybody knows. It’s true. I heard it on the radio.”

The conversation could continue for several minutes and rationality might never creep in. And that’s what some commercials are all about — manipulating, not informing. Cultivating broad fears in the minds of the listeners (voters). You’ve heard them before. You’ll hear them again.

At the end of the commercial we learn this 30 seconds of drama has been brought to you by “Count on Coal.” What is Count on Coal and why does it want you to live in such terrible fear?

Count on Coal is a coal industry advocacy organization. About 80 percent of our electricity these days is generated by coal-fired power plants. And some of the country’s biggest coal companies are based in Missouri.

Here’s what has led to this commercial: The Obama administration has put forth some proposed standards designed to cut carbon pollution from future power plants. Environmentalists love the idea. Some utilities see the standards as disasters, especially for them, because of costs, time constraints, and other factors.

The new rules do not forbid the burning of coal. But they do say any new power plant cannot emit more carbon dioxide than a power plant using natural gas. Some companies already have moved to natural gas and it’s thought the new rules will lead more companies to follow suit, especially at a time when natural gas prices are at record lows.

The natural gas people seem pretty happy about this proposed set of regulations. However, one spokesman for the coal industry has told MSNBC that the rules will “make it impossible to build any new coal-fueled power plants and could cause the premature closure of many more coal-fired” plants that can’t come into compliance with the federal standards.

Some members of the Congress say the EPA is over-reaching and forecast dire consequences such as blackouts. The Associated Press has surveyed power plant operators and reports they are not buying those arguments.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry has sent a letter to both of our U.S. Senators urging them to support a Senate resolution blocking the proposed rules. The Chamber, to its credit, takes a much more temperate attitude. Although it touches on the same issues in the commercial, it does so in a less frightful manner. The Chamber questions the EPA’s timeline for power plants to make changes to comply with the new standards and asks for a more sensible and much less costly approach. And Dan Mehan’s letter cites some sources for its arguments. It doesn’t just shout frightful sentences. The chamber does repeat the stuff about lost jobs and rising (but not soaring) electric bills but cites the EPAs own analysis and additional analysis by an economics consulting firm. But it doesn’t try to scare the pants off its audience. Of course its audience is Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill who have always impressed us as wearing pretty scare-proof pants/slacks and who are pretty familiar with the issue, unlike the general public the coal people want to spook.

So now you know a little bit about why Count on Coal came up with this 30-second commercial. Yes, thousands of jobs could disappear — people in the coal mining, processing, transportation, and handling business among them. And there’s nothing wrong with defending your industry and the people who work in it. That’s why organizations such as Count on Coal exist. And in this country, those organizations are free to advocate for their interests in the way they think is most effective.

But there’s nothing wrong with consumers and reporters asking questions about what is said.

The campaign season is relatively young. We’ll hear and see more commercials such as this one from various groups targeting various office-holders. Some of the messages might be correct. The sky might fall if you don’t call right away. Perhaps, however, some folks will adopt the attitude of the inquiring journalist before they grab that phone and realize the knee-jerk bone is not connected to the brain bone and it is better to ask some questions about what is not being said before becoming somebody’s tool.

Truthiness in Advertising (Part 3)

“Any voter who assumes a political TV ad is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is making a very risky assumption, and they might well cast a vote that is based on completely wrong information. Because there is a lot of completely wrong information out there.” –Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.com

Our friends at the Kansas City Star do an Ad Watch today on a Roy Blunt campaign commercial and a commercial and a campaign commercial for the “Let Voters Decide” group that is pushing proposition A. The Blunt ad criticizing Robin Carnahan’s position on federal health care gets seven out of ten stars for accuracy and fairness. The newspaper gives the Proposition A commercial only six out of ten in those categories and criticizes it as “slightly inaccurate” on one count, and “more misleading” on another.

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