We Must Pass Abigael's Law -- Before Election 2016 Makes Someone Cry

If We Can't Restore Sanity, Maybe We Can Limit the Insanity

By Published on .

Let's cut election ad season down to something reasonable.
Let's cut election ad season down to something reasonable. Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

Over Easter weekend, Republican Ted Cruz launched the first official candidate ad of the 2016 presidential election.

This is horrible news for people in key primary and swing states. Not because Ted Cruz is a creepy, foreign-born candidate with a vaguely ethnic-sounding last name who is intent on foisting his religion on Americans. (Sound familiar?)

But because this is only the start of the deluge of political advertising that will be pumped into American homes until November of next year. And, if recent history is a guide, we'll get a one-week respite before the advertising for 2020 starts up just in time for Christmas.

I'm a fan of political advertising. Sure, it's awful, negative and half full of lies. Even so, it's probably the most honest advertising out there. After all, aren't politicians themselves awful, negative and full of lies? Those are the top three requirements for the job!

Political advertising is useful for another reason. It shows voters just how low a candidate is willing to stoop to get the job done. And all those ads put forward by third-party groups with patriotic-sounding names and funded by the Koch brothers and George Soros and corporations and unions show us exactly the type of people politicians will be working for once they get elected.

But I don't live in a contested state. I'm not subjected to such a barrage of political advertising that by the time the election rolls around, I'm longing for a couple of weeks of state television in North Korea.

Back in 2012, Kantar Media's CMAG found that 1,640 political spots aired during the first 12 days of July. In Columbus, Ohio. Every single one of them was negative.

Even if the advertising was positive, even if it was the best creative ever for the best product ever -- say, an ad for Texas barbecue created by Wieden & Kennedy -- you'd never want to see it again.

There ought to be a law. (This is not a phrase I throw around lightly. I'm still bitter about them raising the drinking age to 21 -- right when I turned 18. I even wrote an entire novel making fun of Michael Bloomberg and his war on Big Soda.)

We'll call it Abigael's law, in honor of the young Colorado girl famously driven to tears by the race between "Bronco Bama" and Mitt Romney.

But the law isn't simply designed to prevent children from crying ("for the children" is an awful reason to regulate). No, the law is meant to bring some sanity back to the process—or at least shorten exposure to insanity. It will also mean that no back-to-school advertiser is ever driven off the air in Ohio again.

The law I'm proposing is fairly simple. During the general election season, you can't advertise on TV or radio at all until 60 days prior to the election. For primaries, it will be 30 days out from the election in that particular state. (You can do whatever you want online -- because no one looks at online ads -- and in print, because print needs all the money it can get.)

We're going to avoid all the confusing distinctions between candidate and party and advocacy advertising made by regulators in other countries, if for no other reason than to curtail cries that we're violating First Amendment rights of faceless political groups bankrolled by downtrodden billionaires. Everyone can advertise! And everyone can spend as much as he or she wants!

But while we're at it, let's tweak the ad rules pertaining to super PACs and advocacy groups. They'll still be allowed to advertise during the established time frames. But under these conditions:

1. The groups have to declare for a specific candidate in their advertising. We need to see who's working for whom.

2. The groups have to include the name of their biggest individual stakeholder or contributor. Our elections shouldn't be the equivalent of an internet comment section. Also, have the courage to stand by your convictions.

3. No more tax-exempt status for any of them.

TV and radio companies aren't going to go for it, of course. They might not make a ton of money from the political candidates, but they're addicted to the millions of dollars flowing in from those third-party groups. But with such a limited amount of time, media companies might end up with full-scale bidding wars (they have to offer candidates fair rates, but can gouge outside groups all they want). It could even force these guys to pick up some national airtime, rather than giving all their money to affiliates and local cable providers.

Candidates might actually buy in. Shortening the time frame takes some of the pressure off. You don't have to crank out ads for a year and a half. You don't have to respond to ads for a year and a half. And you don't have to worry about the fundraising necessary to build a war chest that will last a year and a half. And, best of all, we don't have to see these ads for a year and a half.

Ken Wheaton, the managing editor of Advertising Age, writes our Last Word column. His latest novel, "Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears," was published in 2014.

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