Campaign Ads: Doublespeak in Action

Since I live on the border between two states, I have the “privilege” of watching campaign ads emanating from both of them. What I find humorous, in a distressing sort of way, is the absence of attention to logic. Most of the negative ads employ a common theme: ominous music with a voiceover telling us how our lives will go to hell if Candidate X is elected. Then we’re treated with an unflattering photo of Candidate X–always in black and white–which appears to show him/her engaging in one form of nefarious activity or another, all the while mocking the voters. Then the music changes, and we see a color photo of Candidate Y, interacting lovingly with family and/or voters. And, logic be damned, the choice is obvious: vote for the candidate whose music is happier and whose photo is in color.

What I do not find humorous are the more intentional distortions. For example, voters in both Oregon and Washington are facing initiatives that appear to ban sales taxes on groceries. In the TV ads, we see images of poor families struggling to make ends meet. Then we hear the voiceover, telling us that the proposed initiative would prevent “the politicians” from taxing those poor people even further. My first reaction–and I suppose it’s the reaction the ad makers are hoping to elicit–is to agree with the argument that groceries ought to be exempt from sales taxes. After all, food is a necessity, and there are many non-essential products and services we could tax instead.

Upon closer analysis, however, one learns that neither Oregon nor Washington currently taxes groceries. So why, I wondered, is so much money being spent by someone in the year 2018 to come up with an initiative like this?

Turns out Seattle recently passed a measure to tax sugary carbonated sodas as a health measure to fight obesity among children. Sensing a loss of revenue, the soft drink industry became worried that other cities would follow Seattle’s lead. Then–and here comes the part that’s not so funny–they made the cynical calculation that by casting Seattle’s tax as a “tax on groceries,” they’d have a better chance of an election victory than by telling the plain truth–that Seattle’s tax was a public health measure that only involved sugary carbonated drinks. So, instead of seeking a repeal of Seattle’s tax on sugary soft drinks, they began the crusade that has a much better chance of winning: “Let’s save poor people from the wicked politicians that want to tax groceries!”

I wish we had all taken critical thinking classes in high school and college, so that tactics like these wouldn’t have a prayer of winning. Unfortunately, they seem to work more often than not.