NEW ORLEANS — Modern political campaigns, with their emphasis on media exposure, have helped to turn politicians into "packaged products sold by Madison Avenue types," a Louisiana congressman told a gathering of radio executives here last week.
Speaking at a panel session on the closing day of the National Assn. of Broadcasters' annual radio convention, U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Democrat and one of Capitol Hill's leading experts on communications issues, joined two other House members in discussing current trends in political advertising. Their primary topic was the increase in the use of so-called "negative" campaign ads that are most often produced by groups not associated with individual candidates.
A bill has been introduced in the Senate to limit the ads by outside groups, but the congressmen on Saturday's panel said it was unlikely to become law.
The representatives agreed that there is probably very little that Congress can do to restrict negative advertising on radio and TV and that, as this year's political campaigns heat up, listeners and viewers can expect a deluge of ads that sometimes barely squeeze through the loopholes of libel law and broadcast regulations.
"Negative advertising has been with us since the founding of the Republic," said Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.). "Dirty campaigns are going to happen."
There was relatively little debate here between the politicians and the broadcasters as to the uses of the media at better informing the public about political issues or, for that matter, political candidates.
This was much more nuts-and-bolts stuff that got down to a basic and base issue--money. Politicians want to get more for their campaign dollars while broadcasters want to give less.
The greatest portion of campaign budgets go to the electronic media, primarily television. Radio stations, however, with their tighter program formats and more demographically select audiences could become more attractive to cost-conscious politicians and campaign media planners.
Most onerous to broadcasters are federal regulations that require them to sell time to federal candidates at tremendous discounts--the so-called "lowest unit cost" enjoyed by the most frequent commercial advertisers.
The formulas for determining advertising time can be confusing, but, as a rule, a station must sell political advertising time at a price equal to that paid by a station's largest advertiser.
(If, for example, a local department store's yearlong contract for hundreds of commercials averages out to $100 per commercial, then the station must sell time to all federal candidates for the same $100, no matter how many or how few commercial minutes each candidate buys. The law does not apply, however, to state and local candidates.)
Most broadcasters believe that increasing numbers of politicians are abusing the discounts.
One of the requirements that political ads must meet to qualify for the discounts is that the candidate must appear in the ad.
The broadcasters played several ads, however, in which the candidates' appearances were, at best, fleeting. One radio ad by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), for example, featured the senator's unidentified voice delivering only the tag line that the ad was paid for by the Bumpers campaign committee.
The congressmen on the panel agreed that the negative ads and ads skirting the fringes of the regulations are unwanted but, nonetheless, part of the political system.
"As offensive as those ads are, we still have the First Amendment," said Rep. Wayne Dowdy (D-Miss.).