How to Deconstruct Those Glossy Political Ads

The name of the committee that paid for an ad appears at the end by law. Photo: Screenshot from a CA4aCure YouTube video

Every time an election nears, we're bombarded with increasingly slick, expensive ads that can play almost like Hollywood trailers.

It's no secret the people who make the ads are trying to rile you up and sway your vote. What you may not realize is just how much of an art there is to this game, or how much you can learn from an ad if you know the rules.

Same Old Tactics

Consider the strategy behind the message. In a study of ballot measure campaigns in the Journal of Language and Politics, researchers found that both camps -- for and against -- systematically emphasized certain language regardless of ideology or party affiliation.

The "No" campaigns tended to emphasize the riskiness, unfairness, and costliness of a proposal, while the "Yes" camps often stressed fairness and benefits, according to Shaun Bowler, an initiatives expert at UC Riverside who contributed to the report.

"That might sound straightforward and obvious (though no one had shown it before), but what is a little more surprising is that we can see that pattern across a whole range of issues," Bowler wrote in an interview conducted by e-mail.

Stem-cell research, term limits, cigarette taxes, school bonds, gay marriage -- name the issue and, according to Bowler, you can more or less predict the arguments for and against.

In addition, you can be sure to expect hyperbole.

"The claims [in an ad] probably have enough of a basis not to be called outright misrepresentations," Bowler said. "But of course campaigns will exaggerate and caricature to try and get an edge and use hypotheticals and possible -- but unlikely -- scenarios to do that."

In other words, taking any of these ads at face value can be misleading. That's why the most useful information you get out of an ad may just be the disclaimer at the end.

What's in a Name?

By law in California, political ads for a ballot measure must reveal who paid for them, whether it's coming to you on television, on the radio, by mail, or even a robocall. It's the vitamin tucked inside the eye candy of campaign propaganda.

You've probably noticed the disclaimers: "This ad was paid for by Yes on Prop 123, Californians for a Better Life Through the Ability to Breathe Clean Air, with Major Funding from the Coal Industry, a Coalition of Concerned Parents and Advocates."

That one isn't real, of course, but it does illustrate a point. The committee name itself can tell you a great deal about who's really behind an ad and, by extension, who's supporting or opposing a ballot measure.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission has a very specific set of rules that dictate what information to include in a committee's name (much looser rules apply to candidate ads because, the FPPC says, it is clear that the candidate is the one behind the message). Know the rules, and you can tell not only who's backing a campaign, but also, to a certain degree, how much they're giving.

Rule #1:
Must include the measure number or letter and whether it's for or against.
Rule #2:
If a candidate controls the committee or contributes $50,000 or more, his or her name must be included.
Rule #3:
Sponsored committees must include the sponsor's name.
Rule #4:
Must clearly identify the economic or other special interest of major donors (those who contribute $50,000 or more).
Rule #5:
Top two major donors must be listed first, before other groups such as "concerned citizens," "consumers," "taxpayers," or similar.
Rule #6:
Major donors must be listed in descending order based on the amount of their contributions.
Rule #7:
The name of an employer is required if major donors share a common employer.

Let's take a look at an example to see what we can learn just from applying these rules. Here's the fine print from an ad in the June 5 primary opposing Prop 29, which would introduce a $1 tax per pack of cigarettes to help fund cancer research:

Photo: Screenshot taken from YouTube video from user irinakachyula

Immediately you know what position this committee is taking. You can also see that the top two major funders are tobacco companies. That means they gave more than $50,000 each (a lot more, it turns out). You also know that Philip Morris gave more than R.J. Reynolds, because it is listed first.

Notice that "taxpayers, small businesses, law enforcement & labor" are bumped to the bottom, no matter how much they represent in contributions, collectively. In fact, campaign finance reports filed by the committee show the two major tobacco companies and their affiliates gave nearly all of the almost $40 million raised so far. Not a single contribution listed could be said to come from law enforcement (not at the time this was written), which makes that reference suspect, though "taxpayers" could mean nearly any person or organization in the state. "Small businesses" and "labor" might (though it's quite a stretch) refer to the only two non-tobacco industry companies that contributed, a pair of trucking companies.

In other words, be wary of some of these general designations.

Here's another committee name, this one formed to support a referendum on the November ballot:

The measure it's addressing would repeal the new State Senate district boundaries set after the 2010 Census. You don't see a clear position of "Yes" or "No" because the measure has not received a proposition number yet.

But let's break it down, anyway. The name alone tells us that the California Republican Party, someone named Frank Greinke (a state senator), Mimi Walters' senate campaign committee, and Senator Dutton's campaign committee likely contributed more than $50,000 each.

It's also possible that a candidate gave less than $50,000 but controls the committee (a look at campaign filings shows that not to be the case).

The Takeaway

The bottom line is that you'll generally know from a committee name whether they want a "Yes" or "No" vote and on which measure. You will also know, at a glance, who the big spenders are, and their names will be listed in order, from most to least, of how much they contributed.

If you want specifics -- a list of all contributor names, for instance, and how much each gave -- you can often find them with a little help from your media pals. MapLight and Ballot Brief do the legwork for you and post the results online.

The really courageous can dig through the complete campaign finance filings online. Head over to the Secretary of State's website, search by proposition number, committee name, or committee ID, and see a list of every associated contribution and expense. We included the committee ID's for each example in this post to help you get started.

However you do it, just make sure you know who's peddling the message.