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Free Speech or Free-For-All: Supreme Court Decision on Political Advertising Will Pose Challenges to Media and Marketers Alike

"You don't have to bruise an elephant all over to kill him. One shot in the right place will do."

If you are a regular reader of our blogs, you have seen quotes from the famous adman Howard Gossage before. But I have taken the liberty of going back to Gossage’s amazingly relevant observations because of last week’s Supreme Court decision to rule that restrictions on political advertising by corporations, trade unions and like organizations were in conflict with our First Amendment rights of free speech.

Before I go further, a disclaimer is in order. One of the few rules governing postings on Villing News & Views is that we avoid political discussions. Goodness knows there are ample places available elsewhere for those conversations. Our focus here is apolitical and will always focus on topics relevant to the practice of marketing.

Not being a constitutional authority, I can’t comment on the premise of the decision. It seems logical. My concerns are the ramifications of this decision on the media and ultimately marketers. Most people do not like political advertising. Even more don’t like the barrage of political advertising they see prior to elections or Congressional votes on controversial legislative issues. This decision will only increase the volume of such advertising. On the surface, it may seem like a windfall opportunity for the media. But the reality is that more such advertising will only cause further erosion in the usage of television and other advertising-driven media outlets as people are turned off by the incessant and unrestricted level of partisan one-upmanship and, quite frankly, annoying political advertising messages.

For sure, the Constitution guarantees our right of free speech. I'm not sure it should guarantee our right to overkill. I believe everyone – consumers, marketers and media – would be better served by some form of limitations on the volume of political advertising. If that can’t be accomplished with dollar limits, perhaps it can be by allowing the media to define the percentage of time or space allocated for this purpose. The purveyors of these messages will still have media access and thus the opportunity to speak to the American public. They just won’t be able to beat them to death. And this will also allow time and space for non-political advertisers (the retailers and business people who actually contribute to our economy) to get their marketing messages out. As it stands, traditional advertisers are at the mercy of political advertising, which is granted non-preemptible status.

Gossage had another quote I’ve always liked. It is applicable to all advertising, but seems especially relevant to the “bruise ‘em all over” approach of much political messaging. Comparing advertising to other communications, he said, “How often do you have to read a book, a news story, or see a movie or play? If it is interesting, once is enough; if it is dull, once is plenty.”

Filed Under: advertising

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