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Why you should just ignore campaign ads

I’ve been meaning to write a piece urging you to ignore all campaign advertising. Collectively they are massive falsehoods. If some of the “facts” within them are in some defensible sense technically “accurate,” it doesn’t matter, because you can’t tell which ones they are. The odd claims that aren’t false are mostly just fuzzy promises of better days if the candidate or group sponsoring the ads gets power.

If this is an overly harsh generalization, it isn’t by much.

I decided to go ahead and let fly with my anti-ads screed today because I just watched one by the Donald Trump for President campaign, and it illustrates pretty well the generalization above about the general dishonesty of campaign ads. The ad is below.

Perhaps you are saying: Wait a minute. Donald Trump isn’t running for president this year. That’s correct, but if you watch the ad to the bottom you’ll see that it’s nonetheless paid for by the Donald Trump for President Campaign. It doesn’t end by asking you to vote for Trump; it ends “Vote Republican.”

If one were to make the silly mistake of treating such an ad as making an actual “argument” based on “facts,” the argument is that things were horrible until Republicans took over all branches of the federal government and have been great ever since.

At least that’s how stupid the makers of the ad think you are. Or maybe I should say how “gullible.” Or maybe I should say, like almost all TV ads, this one isn’t rooted in facts and logic. It is eyewash, brainwash, mouthwash.

It’s hard to actually “fact-check” an ad like this, although it purports to contain some facts, but the facts, while technically “accurate” in some sense, are distorted by being taken so far out of context as to be some category of falsehoods. The “argument” about how terrible things were until Trump came to the rescue relies heavily on jobs numbers. The first “fact” we hear is that new jobs have been created during the previous May, and the unemployment rate has fallen to an 18-year low. Those sound like “facts” and they sort of are, but in the larger sense they are lies or at least deceptions. This is how ads work.

The ad’s first “fact” comes from a newsreader on a CNN program called “New Day” announcing  that new jobs created in May have driven unemployment down to its lowest level in 18 years. This is the beginning of the use of “true lies” to make the case for the continuation of Republican stewardship of the economy.

It’s technically true that during 2018 U.S. unemployment reached its lowest point in 18 years. But it’s some form of a lie because in the context of the ad script, it’s used to tout Republican stewardship. The last time unemployment was lower was the year 2000, at the end of eight years of Bill Clinton in the White House. Clinton, if you’ve forgotten, was a Democrat.

So, to restate, the argument for keeping power in Republican hands is that the last time unemployment was this low, a Democrat was president.

Soon after Republican George W. Bush took over the Oval Office, unemployment rose, at first modestly, and then drifted back down, not quite to the level he inherited from Clinton. But in December of 2007, the beginning of the eighth and last year of Bush’s presidency, the so-called housing bubble burst, wiping out trillions of dollars in value — which led to sharp drops in consumer spending and a general semi-collapse of the U.S. economy, leading to the disappearance of 8.4 million jobs, and a massive spike in unemployment from about 4.6 to 8.6 percent. It was the worst U.S. economic disaster since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Democrat Barack Obama inherited that mess when he became president in 2009, with the financial mess ongoing. In 2010, unemployment hit a peak of 9.6 percent and has gone down every year since, from 9.6 to 4.9 percent at the end of 2016, when Obama left office, and down further, to 3.6 in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (That would be six years of declining unemployment under Obama and two under Trump.)

I should say, with due modesty, that I am not a sophisticated economic thinker, and I do not know how much credit or blame the occupant of the Oval Office should get for economic ups and downs. My hunch is it’s probably less than they do get. And it’s true that during 2018, the unemployment rate is the lowest since Clinton days. But the drop in unemployment leading to this happy number occurred much more under Obama than under Trump. I emphasize that because the ad is supposedly arguing about the urgency of keeping Republicans in power.

Here is a Bureau of Labor Statistics chart of the unemployment ups and downs during the years we’ve been discussing.

Unemployment rate from 2008-2018
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Unemployment rate from 2008-2018
You would have to be delusional, pretty full of yourself, or a colossal liar, or all three, to think that the main turning point in this story was when Donald Trump took over in 2017.

But, according to the Trump ad, it’s all about him and leads to the vital urgency of maintaining Republican control in the elections that are now one week away.

It would be more honest to say that the economy grew impressively during the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, crashed dramatically during the tenure of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, improved steadily during the last six years of the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, (although Republicans controlled Congress during part of that stage), and has continued to improve during the going-on-two-years that Republican Trump has been in charge.

But some of us do not quite trust Trump to be more honest when it comes to claiming credit or avoiding blame for himself or his party.

If you feel like it, watch the Trump ad again, with the above facts in mind. Fifteen seconds in, you’ll see a graphic of how awful things were in January 2010 (unemployment rate 9.7!) but no mention of the fact  that Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress from 2001 to 2007, when the collapse started. (Republicans also controlled the Senate during much, but not all, of the George W. Bush presidency.)

It also doesn’t mention that, after rising during 2017, the first year of the all-Republican lineup in Washington, the Dow Jones average and the Standard and Poor 500 have declined so far in 2018.

But, if you go back and watch the ad again, you’ll see that other than gauzy images of happy (white) American families portrayed by actors, and nonspecific claims by the unseen (female) narrator, there are actually only two facts in the whole ad — an ad for the importance of keeping Republicans in charge in Washington — and one of those is the one I mentioned two paragraphs up: that unemployment hit 9.7 percent in January of 2010, when George W. Bush was president and Republicans controlled the U.S.House.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/30/2018 - 09:48 am.

    I do my best – not entirely successfully – to ignore political ads, especially and specifically political ads that appear on television. This particular election season, the most corrosive and least-truthful ads that I’ve seen (often I’m successful in finding and hitting the “mute” button on the remote before the audible lies begin) are those paid for by national election committees. Democrats are spending a lot of money elsewhere, I suppose, because I’ve only seen a few paid for by the Democratic national committee, but Republican-sponsored ads have been ubiquitous about senatorial and congressional candidates. None that I’ve seen have been more accurate or factual than the one mentioned by Eric above.

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/30/2018 - 09:49 am.

    “When Obama was president, out daughter couldn’t play the violin. Today, she is a successful concert soloist. Thank you, Mr. President, for making this miracle happen.”

    Let’s check back in a week to see how effective this ad was, shall we?

  3. Submitted by Tim Smith on 10/30/2018 - 10:23 am.

    your first paragraph was perfect, ignore the ads as both sides lie and lie badly. No end to how misleading both parties are. Then you sink in to your usual extreme bias toward all things left.
    When Bush took office we literally were within days of a recession, nothing could be done to create it at that point or stop it. It was the business cycle and I recall the bust and Enron scandle somewhere in that time frame.

    2009 was an international recession, not sure the administration did anything to make every country on the globe fail , or that Obama did anything to singularly bring us out of it.

    During the Obama adminstration the reporting from this column and others like it was that the unemployment rate dropped , drop the mic, he was an amazing steward of the economy. The analysis was that shallow.

    Along comes Trump and then the left starts to dig deeper, go figure. Senator Warren and others claiming the lower unemployement rate was due to so many working 2-4 jobs, that is a lie.

    Sorry, you just cannot dispute with the tax cut and deregulation the economy and growth rate has improved under Trump. Almost no one in business would argue this is just a continuation of the Mr. Obama. The facts and reason just aren’t there.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/30/2018 - 12:19 pm.

      So much better??

      In the “best economy, ever”, why do you suppose that the deficit is increasing at a rapid rate and the deficit in 2019 could be as large as the worst year of the economic collapse (2012) ?

      Now what do you think the enormous deficits will do–MAGA ?

      With the “biggest enemy” of the economy being the Fed–why does he want to keep interest rates so low in the “best economy, ever” ? What room will there be for “lowering” interest rates when the 8 year expansion goes into the toilet (I hear some suspicious gurgling in the intestines of the economy now…)?

      To me, Trump came in riding on the upswing of the economy and making no allowance for the drop that is certain to come.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/30/2018 - 12:34 pm.

      A) No one who knows me would call me a “lefty extremist.”

      B) Your second paragraph almost gets the point. Presidents rarely have very much to do with the rise and fall of a cyclical economy such as ours. They generally don’t deserve blame when things go bad, and they generally don’t deserve praise when things go well.

      C) I thought – and still think – Mr. Obama made an excellent moderate Republican while in office. We heard virtually none of his community-organizing rhetoric, at least on the national, public stage. Privately, I fondly hope he has remembered some of it.

      D) I can’t speak to the accuracy of Senator Warren’s claim, though it does seem plausible. So does yours, but it’s free of facts so it’s hard to tell.

      E) Actually, I **can** and I **do** dispute the implied notion that most of us are better off under the deregulation and tax cut regimen of the Trump administration, and perhaps more accurately, since Trump is a mere figurehead, the agenda of Messrs. Ryan and McConnell. Wages for most of those outside the top 10% or so remain stagnant, and proportionally, the tax breaks went to companies and individuals who need them the least. Whether I will benefit personally remains to be seen – I won’t see my tax preparer until early February – but for the society as a whole, I’ve yet to see much non-Republican evidence that the spur to the economy has come from the Republican agenda. Maybe it has, but the data is, shall we say, incomplete. To cite just one of several similar conclusions:

    • Submitted by Joel Stegner on 10/30/2018 - 01:25 pm.

      I judge the economy on how well the middle class is going. Here are some facts. Pay increases for non-executives are anemic. with health insurance costs eating up most of any raise. Higher education and healthcare become less affordable by the early. Young people are forced to pass 30 before they clear student loans and can get on with marriage, homes and children – more often just one. Republicans are again threatening retirement by talking about cutting Socia Security and Medicare. Business continues to jettison older employees who face gap years until receiving full retirement benefits. In fact prosperity’s largesse is focuse in the rich, barely helps the middle class and hurts the poor.

      • Submitted by Tim Smith on 10/30/2018 - 04:56 pm.

        If that is true, then it was true under Obama and you wete silent. Businesses jettisoning older enployees, do you have proof that is true on a broad basis?

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/31/2018 - 09:46 pm.

          You are under the impression that Democrats are as uncritical of their politicians as Republicans are of theirs.

          There was a lot of criticism of Obama from Democrats during his two terms, although we Democrats never called him a “Kenyan Muslim” or compared him and his family to apes. We did criticize his capitulation to the Blue Dogs on health care, his foreign policy, and his coddling of the Wall Street pirates.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2018 - 03:30 pm.

      Unemployment (the number of people actively looking for jobs) may be down. However,
      Underemployment (the number of people earning less than they need to provide for necessities) or working part time when they would like to work full time is not.
      And the unemployment figure does not count the number of people who have dropped out of the work force.
      By itself, you are cherry picking the data.

      • Submitted by Tim Smith on 10/30/2018 - 04:54 pm.

        You are proving my point. You were happy with unemployment going down under Obama and ignored the underlying data for political purposes. Now you are concerned with that data, which by the way is improving all the time.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2018 - 05:40 pm.

          First of all, I have not been satisfied with the jobs situation under either administration; neither in fact was Obama. He wasted most of his first term trying to work with the party of no, then settled for half measures (like a stimulus that he knew was inadequate).
          The difference is that he didn’t give tax breaks to the top 1% and a payday loan (otherwise known as a temporary tax withholding decrease) to everyone else.

          The current economy is good only if you’re in the top 1%.
          Median real wages have not risen in a long time; they certainly have not kept up with the cost of living. If yours have, you’re one of the lucky few.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 10/30/2018 - 05:54 pm.

          You will never get people here to concede they are hypocrites. As you say, they were fine with not looking at the details under Obama yet now under Trump they care.

          The cycle will continue.. we will have a serious crash in the next year or 2 and it will be bigger than 2008. We are actually almost overdue for it.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/31/2018 - 07:33 am.

          Mr. Smith, you bring up some good points.

          The income gap has been expanding for a long time, decades in fact. It goes back through administrations both D & R. Once corporate America took over the DNC (they long had a lock on the RNC), those Wall Street barons were abale to tamp down any idea of Democrats talking about stagnating wages for the masses while the wealthy took a larger share of the pie.

          It was this, coupled with corporate negotiated free trade agreements, that gave us Don Trump. There were too many elections for POTUS where neither candidate talked about why working folks aren’t doing as well as their parents and grandparents. Both candidates were pushing free trade without concern for what it was doing to manufacturing based localities.

          Wisely, Don Trump tapped into this. And it was made possible by Dems who genuflected to Wall Street. Think about how Wall Street and the mega banksters crashed the global economy after Bill Clinton and a GOP Senate gave them the tools. In the greatest financial crisis in 70 years, Obama the “socialist” let them off the hook. While even the business friendly Reagan Admin sent some S & L crooks to jail, Obama’s Justice Dept. couldn’t manage charging even one white collar crook.

          When Don Trump became the first major party candidate to pan trade deals, while he was running against a candidate who’d taken gobs of cash in fees for giving secret speeches to Wall Street interests, the die was cast. As Jim Hightower has said, the national Democratic party has long since shed the Red Wing work boots in favor of a pair of Gucci loafers.

          Of course, this is not at all to suggest Don Trump is doing anything to help working folks. After all, he has said wages are too high.

    • Submitted by David Therkelsen on 10/30/2018 - 04:46 pm.

      What nonsense. If, indeed, we were within days of a recession when Bush 43 took office, then why would his prescription have been to fight two wars (one of them astonishingly ill advised), cut taxes on the wealthy, and create Medicare Part D, every dollar of which was put on the national credit card?

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 10/30/2018 - 07:28 pm.

        David, we were in a recession or on the cusp of one when Bush took office. Have you forgotten the 2000/2001 crash? It was the dot com bubble the was blown up under Clinton and burst just as he was leaving office. Roughly 8 years later, we had another bubble burst. Another one is going to burst fairly soon.

        Bush made a lot of bad decisions. But then so did Obama. If you’re going to blame Bush for 2 wars and Medicare Part D (which he should be blamed for) then you also have to blame Obama for continuing those 2 wars, added in a few more of his own and passing PPACA which drastically increased insurance costs and healthcare spending.

  4. Submitted by Misty Martin on 10/30/2018 - 12:08 pm.


    I do my utmost to try and “ignore” all the political campaign ads that I hear and see – to this point I am feeling swamped and nauseous from hearing all of that NOISE coming at me from all directions.

    I love this article!!!!! All of Trump’s supporters should read it – how they can defy and continue to deny actual statistics is beyond me. And Eric, in your paragraph where you stated: “you would have to be delusional, pretty full of yourself or a colossal liar, or all three . . . ” you had to know how “perfectly” this describes our present POTUS!!! He is indeed, all three of those things!

    Eric, you would know this history fact, and I wish I had the book about Abraham Lincoln in front of me this instant, but I read that one of his campaign rivals that he was running against, used some “mud slinging” (I’m NOT sure what the term is for what is being slung these days, lol) whereby they accused him as being “two-faced”. And Lincoln responded with this remark: “I’ll let my public decide. If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”

    Why can’t we have candidates with the level of Lincoln’s caliber any more? The last time I saw someone with that kind of character was when Senator John McCain rebuffed someone who questioned Senator Obama’s character at a political rally he was at when they were both running for the office of POTUS. I’m afraid we won’t likely see that kind of character any more, with all of the hate that has evolved since the last Presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and continues to grow ever since Donald Trump took office. It’s very discouraging, and I can’t help but see a connection with all of the violence that we are witnessing lately. Our nation needs to find a way to heal, but I fear, it will not come easily.

  5. Submitted by Jon Ruff on 10/30/2018 - 12:13 pm.

    The barrage of political ads has become so intense that it now provides the most effective aversion therapy away from commercial television that I could have ever hoped for. Streaming, and PBS (and Print news) have provided welcome refuge from the assault.
    It’s too bad that we can’t develop an app that allows those who have already voted to be excluded from the adds.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/30/2018 - 09:41 pm.

      Same here! I haven’t had cable since 2012, so all my viewing is either PBS (over the air) or the wealth of classic and foreign films and TV on the various streaming services. If there’s a severe summer storm or blizzard coming, I’ll turn to WCCO for a few minutes.

      Every election year, I have been doubly grateful for my avoidance of network and cable TV. I never see political ads.

  6. Submitted by John Webster on 10/30/2018 - 01:24 pm.

    My late father-in-law often said that one of the best inventions of his lifetime was the Mute button on the TV remote control. That’s never more true than every election season when viewers are bombarded with misleading and scurrilous political commercials from almost every candidate.

    Almost all journalists believe – as does the vast majority of the public – that the President has a Magic Wand that he waves to control the economy. If he is stupid or evil in that wand waving, the economy flounders; if he waves it correctly, prosperity results. No one familiar with serious economic thinking believes any such thing. Trump’s claim that unemployment has declined during his Presidency is true; it is also true that unemployment declined even more during Obama’s last few years in office. The most meaningful difference in economic performance between the two Presidents is that GDP has grown much faster under Trump, with the latest quarter showing a 3.5% annual gain in GDP – a figure much higher than Obama believed was possible. Time will tell whether that strong growth is sustainable, and if the increased deficits resulting from the Trump tax cuts will be a long-term economic drag.

    Unduly crediting or blaming elected officials for economic performance also applies to state Governors. An article of faith among Minnesota Democrats is that the MN economy has outpaced the Wisconsin economy for the last eight years because of which party has controlled the Governor’s office in each state. It’s true that the MN economy has outpaced the WI economy, but that’s been true for 25+ years, even when MN had a Republican Governor and WI had a Democratic Governor. The main factor for this discrepancy was structural in nature: WI has always depended far more on blue-collar manufacturing jobs, the type of jobs that have been eliminated because of globalization and automation. State government policies have played a minimal part in this discrepancy.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/30/2018 - 01:47 pm.

    Why doesn’t Coke tell us about that mouse tail found in a vat of Pepsi? or Chevy showing more pictures of exploding fords or Toyota’s accelerating into a brick wall? It seems all conventional wisdom in product placement ads is that extolling the virtues of your product is an effective ad strategy.

    Only in politics is the preferred path to tell us the untold horrors of the competitive alternative.

  8. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/30/2018 - 02:50 pm.

    Trump is a GASLIGHTER. He is a master at manipulating and finding the people he knows they will stand by him no matter what—and he uses these people against you. Trump is a demonstrable liar.
    1. He tells blatant lies.
    a. Once he tells you a huge lie, you’re not sure if anything he says is true. Keeping you unsteady and off-kilter is the goal.
    2. He denies he ever said something, even though you have proof.
    a. It makes you start questioning your reality—maybe he never said that thing. The more they do this, the more you question your reality and start accepting his.
    3. He uses what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
    a. He tells you’d be a worthy person if only you didn’t have a long list of negative traits. He attacks the foundation of your being.
    4. He wear you down over time.
    a. A lie here, a lie there, a snide comment every so often…and then it starts ramping up. Even the brightest, most self-aware people can be sucked into gaslighting—it is that effective.
    5. His actions do not match his words.
    a. What he says means nothing; it is just talk. What he is doing is the issue.
    6. He throws in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
    a. Look at what he praises you for; it is probably something that served him.
    7. He knows confusion weakens people.
    a. His goal is to uproot and make you constantly question everything. And humans’ natural tendency is to look to the person or entity that will help you feel more stable—and that happens to be Trump.
    8. He projects.
    a. He is a cheater, yet he is constantly accusing you of that. This is done so often that you start trying to defend yourself, and are distracted from Trumps own behavior.
    9. He tries to align people against you.
    a. Trump is a constant liar. When he uses this tactic it makes you feel like you don’t know who to trust or turn to—and that leads you right back to the him. And that’s exactly what he wants: Isolation gives him more control.
    10. He tells you or others that you are crazy.
    a. Trump knows if he questions your sanity, people will not believe you when you tell them that Trump is abusive or out-of-control. It’s a master technique.
    11. He tells you everyone else is a liar.
    a. By telling you that everyone else (your family, the media) is a liar, it again makes you question your reality. You’ve never known someone with the audacity to do this, so they must be telling the truth, right? No. It’s a manipulation technique. It makes people turn to Trump for the “correct” information—which isn’t correct information at all.
    The more you are aware of these techniques, the quicker you can identify them and avoid falling into the Trump’s trap like the GOP has. TRUMP IS A GASLIGHTER!

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/30/2018 - 07:30 pm.

      Thank you for your opinion. What it has to do with not watching campaign adds eludes me but our author should still have two more years to bash President Trump virtually every day (the President has been a gift for over 4 years now to our author) despite the impeachment proceedings that await in the next two years. Remember, the more gridlock, the better the country does because the government stays out of the way…

  9. Submitted by ian wade on 10/30/2018 - 05:03 pm.

    All I know is that I have a sore thumb from hitting the mute button. Next Tuesday can’t come soon enough.

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