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Ads that make you open your wallet

November 08, 2005|Lawrence Noble | LAWRENCE NOBLE is the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that studies money in politics and its effect on public policy. Website: www.opensecrets.org.

NOW THAT President Bush has nominated Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court, steel yourself for a barrage of ads painting him as a hero or a monster. Your first reaction may be to flip that channel, as what passes for public debate these days often seems more like a professional wrestling match, complete with verbal folding chairs to the head.

Before you tune out, however, consider the purpose behind these ads. They are not primarily intended to persuade the undecided. They are aimed at rallying the faithful -- and getting them to open their wallets.

Political fundraising by advocacy groups has become a full-time business here in Washington, and nothing is better for business than an all-out political brawl. The hotter the issue and the more dramatic the pitch, the more money can be raised. The fact that this may not be a good way for a democracy to decide complex issues matters little.

The need to raise money to wage ideological warfare, while energizing supporters, often leads to the selling of a mind-numbing cartoon version of reality. That, in turn, polarizes Americans, which motivates the base still more. In this way, political advertising accentuates the nation's partisan divide.

Take the just-launched battle over Alito. On the day he was nominated, the conservative advocacy group Progress for America, or PFA, immediately announced a $425,000 advertising campaign and a $50,000 e-campaign. Its website links to www.upordownvote.com, which boasts that the PFA Voter Fund "has spent almost $50 million in 2004 to promote President Bush's agenda."

Meanwhile, the website of the liberal Alliance for Justice announced that it is opposing the Alito nomination because he's "dedicated to carrying out" the agenda of the "radical right," which is now "giddy" over his selection. Alito's confirmation, it warns, could "jeopardize our most cherished rights and freedoms."

Those who click on "I want to contribute!" are given the default option of supporting the organization's activities as a whole.

A fundraising e-mail sent last week by the American Conservative Union, which supports the Alito nomination, warns that "WE CANNOT ALLOW THE LIBERALS TO WIN!!" It adds: "We must raise an additional $200,000.00 in the next 14 days to launch our campaign to ensure Judge Alito receives a speedy confirmation hearing and vote." Those who click on that red-lettered appeal are directed to fill in their credit card information.

In each of these appeals, the reader is asked to give money to support a broad range of the organization's activities -- most of which have nothing directly to do with the Alito nomination.

Fundraisers will tell you they use these overwrought appeals because they work. They say people won't sit still for policy lectures.

Of course, whether you think these ads work depends on your goal. If the goal is to have a well-informed public debate, it's hard to find evidence of success. But if your goal is to raise money for your cause, the tactics make sense.

The problem is that eventually many fundraisers come to view the issues as commodities with a monetary value separate and apart from the societal cost of the outcome.

It's hard to know exactly how much money is sloshing around, because many of these tax-exempt organizations do not have to make public the details of their fundraising and spending.

Some issues are clearly fundraising and motivational duds. Although liberal and conservative groups raised money in anticipation of a food fight over the Supreme Court nominations, we didn't see the expected spending because the nomination of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not trigger a major battle. Fear of who the nominee was going to be was a better fundraising tool than the actual nominee. And Harriet E. Miers wasn't the fundraising draw either side expected.

Issue-specific fundraising and direct mail can highlight real problems and spark meaningful debate. But too often, the need to raise money leads many groups to stick to hot-button issues and simplistic messages.

This leaves a lot of orphan issues that are important but not easy sells. There was an outbreak of compassion after Hurricane Katrina, but nobody is fundraising to air commercials arguing for or against using tax dollars to fix our crumbling urban infrastructures.

As long as citizens and businesses fund organizations that insist on painting every issue in red and blue, we will be missing out on a whole palette of options.

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