Better Heard Not Seen: The FCC’s Recent Requirement of Prominent Disclaimers on Political TV Ads May Change the Mix of Broadcast Campaigns

March 1, 1992

The burning question: What vision strikes terror into the hearts of political consultants?

The apparent answer: An obvious byline. I refer, of course, to the recent declaratory ruling by the Federal Communications Commission requiring a readily readable sponsorship tag line-or “disclaimer”-on campaign television commercials.

The ostensible goal of the FCC action is to clarify to the viewer exactly who is paying for spots-particularly those of the negative (or, if you’re into euphemisms, “comparative”) variety. Up to now, the disclaimer on most negative TV spots has been displayed momentarily in type the size of the fine print at the bottom of insurance policies. Now the name of the sponsor must fill up four percent of the screen height for four full seconds, enough to insure that attribution will be difficult to escape after the second or third exposure. The resulting repercussions for the delivery of negative messages could be significant, particularly when combined with the proliferation of negative ad “truth patrols” in the news media.

Escaping the Backlash

This decree, to say the least, hasn’t gone down especially well with many consultants. Some find the new requirement about as galling as the tobacco lobby must have found the mandatory surgeon general’s warning on packs of smokes. And it will be as disruptive, they fear, as that Energizer bunny noisily barging into what at first seem to be legitimate product commercials.

It could have been worse, and in fact, it was. The original rule change handed down in December called for an audio disclaimer to accompany the traditionally elusive visual version, but the national party committees raised such a stink, the FCC knuckled under with a revision to the revision. Announced on Valentine’s Day, the sweetheart deal substituted the new visual enhancements for the intrusive voiceover. [See cover story.]

Some consultants are still grumbling that the limited change will be the political equivalent of the cautionary “He’s lying” super that ran over Joe Isuzu’s exaggerated claims. “They don’t go to that length [of detail in disclosure requirements] with drugs,” moans Republican TV hitman Mark Barnes. “It’s clearly an infringement of rights.”

But hold on just a minute (or 30 seconds, if you prefer). Radio spots have always had to contend with the more onerous requirement of an audio disclaimer. So welcome, TV, to the world of radio.

In radio, we’ve learned to deal with the intrusive in a number of creative ways: for example, using a different announcer to voice the disclaimer so as not to diminish the credibility of the narrator of the spot itself, or even lowering the sound level of the disclaimer, or speeding it up slightly during production, to make it less intrusive.

While comparable techniques will doubtlessly be developed to lessen the impact of TV’s new burden, the nature of that beast wiH require some rethinking about a political campaign’s broadcast mix. Some or all negative media should probably be shifted to radio. That television is an awesomely powerful medium, no one can deny, but radio has its own unique strengths as a campaign medium. And it is particularly wellsuited to the heavy lifting involved in carrying out a sustained attack against an opponent, or taking on the other side in a hot-button issue campaign.

The Power 01 Radio-active Warfare

First, radio’s longer average spot length lends itself to the fleshing out of complicated arguments or the telling of mini-stories. To the listener, this can make even a pretty incendiary charge seem less like a drive-by shooting than the necessarily truncated version of the same accusation in a TV spot of half the length. This greater body of material also tends to sublimate the skepticism aroused by the obligatory disclaimer.

Second, radio’s inherently subliminal nature takes advantage of one of the most powerful forces on earth: the human imagination. And when used creatively and effectively, no other medium can conjure up mental images as well as radio. We all know the story of the boy who told his dad he preferred radio to television because “radio has better pictures.”

A major correlating benefit: Invisible radio leaves no footprints. The images it creates and impressions it conveys are wholly in the mind of the listener. (There’s also the story about the woman who, when shown a Rorschach inkblot by her psychiatrist, stormed out of his office yelling, “I’m not paying you $80 an hour to show me dirty pictures!”)

Another byproduct of this radio attribute is people’s tendency to confuse where they came across campaign information. In many campaigns I’ve done, I’ve had people insist they saw a charge we made about our opposition on TV, when in fact the assertion was used only in the radio campaign. In one U.S. Senate race I used a mix of 21 radio spots and 11 TV spots. All but two radio spots were negative-most of them pretty heavy (but true) stuff; only three of the TV messages were negative. Yet our survey data on ad recall and voters’ overall perceptions clearly showed that most people thought the TV campaign was mostly negative (or “dirty”), while they basically approved of the radio campaign.

Third, radio’s less costly production and shorter lead times vis-a-vis TV allow for easier mid-course corrections. In case of a misfire or backlash, spots can be recalled and amended or redone altogether-literally overnight. In multi-media campaigns, themes and lines of attack can also be test-marketed on radio before committing to the expense of TV production and buying.

Fourth, in the increasingly common campaign “ad watch” features of many newspapers and newscasts, radio spots generally fly under the radar. Seldom are they monitored as regularly or analyzed as closely as TV spots. In fact, one study of 1990 campaign media sponsored by American University’s campaign management school discovered that only one newspaper had focused on radio as well as TV spots. The networks and some local TV stations also critique ads, but television’s infatuation with the visual almost always precludes any serious concentration on its audio-only sister.

“It’s an invisible gas,” explains Democratic media maestro Joe Slade White, a radio specialist before moving on to more lucrative TV advertising. “The news media just doesn’t see the effect radio is having on the electorate. That makes it perfect for a guerilla campaign that needs to sneak up on a sleeping giant.”

Some cynics would suggest the dearth of attention paid to radio campaigns by the media is an indication of a limited reach into the electorate. The facts expose such thinking as a misperception. Nearly 80 percent of adults are exposed to radio advertising every day; 96 percent every week. Most of us listen for an average of three hours a day-including weekends. Radio edges out TV in terms of reach, far outstripping newspapers. (All these figures are from national studies conducted by the Arbitron broadcast rating service and R.H. Bruskin & Associates, a national market and media research organization.)

Others may suggest the low profile radio cuts with the news media is a disadvantage to building an “earned media” campaign. To that we might fairly ask, “When’s the last time a negative ad got a favorable review from the newshounds?” It is true, however, that even a poorly-received ad may do immeasurably more harm to its target than its sponsor in its free circulation. In such cases, you would do well to produce a TV ad for limited paid exposure on inexpensive, targeted cable outlets, and distribution to reporters on video carts.

When all is said and shown, my bet is the new FCC requirement will not mean “hasta la vista, baby” for so-called killer TV spots, as some campaign Cassandras are predicting. Never underestimate the ingenuity of political media maestros in getting around, over, or under restrictions imposed by government regulators. But if some out there start finding it tough to avoid a backlash from their negative TV, I guess they’ll just have to put more of their pictures on radio.