Few things are more despicable, annoying and damaging than TV advertising in three categories:
2. Law Firms (ambulance chasers)
3. Election Candidates
I have not tried to track this, but I’m convinced that these three categories represent at least 50% of the advertising time on the TV channels I watch at the times that I watch television. I understand that we will probably not get rid of them, unless we all stop watching television (which would not be such a bad thing), but that is too high a price for me who loves to watch sports, news channels, Discovery, National Geographic and HGTV.
I hope and suspect that you are with me: who can possibly not gag as we get bombarded with commercials for Viagra, Cialis, T-gel or Monistat? Do we really want to become even more litigious as a society with only the ambulance chasers as beneficiaries? And why would we permit candidates for public office to advertise anything but the plans they have for addressing our societal challenges?
First the case of pharmaceuticals, specifically prescription drugs. I will contend that the manufacturers and marketers of these drugs have no business advertising them directly to consumers who lack even the basic knowledge and understanding of the pros and cons of a drug and can’t buy them anyway without a prescription. Advertising is heavily weighted towards new, patented and therefore expensive and somewhat risky drugs. You will know the risky side because of the frightening litany of possible adverse side-effects that has to be included in the advertisement (which makes you wonder why anyone would even want to go on any of these medications).
My objection is that pharmaceuticals should only be advertised to the professionals who can prescribe and sell them, physicians and pharmacists. Only these professionals can make the judgment, from the plethora of available options, what particular medication to prescribe for a particular patient at a particular time. They should not be pressured by their patients demanding a specific drug they saw advertised on TV. Advertising of pharmaceuticals works against the use of generic drugs, which need to be promoted in the public interest if we ever are getting serious about bringing down the cost of healthcare in America. Commercials for prescription drugs are not only tasteless, inappropriate for young audiences who are nevertheless submitted to them, but outright dangerous and damaging to public health.
TV advertisements for pharmaceuticals, if they cannot be banned completely, should carry a mandatory caution statement: “If your gag reflection lasts more than four hours you should immediately see a doctor.”
The case of personal injury lawyers is no different. We can only ruefully long back for the time, not too long ago, that the profession itself, represented by the American Bar Association, deemed advertising its services to the public unprofessional. The Chicago Bar Association held that "the most worthy and effective advertisement possible...is the establishment of a well-merited reputation for professional capacity and fidelity to trust". But it was the Supreme Court that, in a 1977 ruling in the case of Bates vs the State of Arizona, decided that banning advertising infringed on the First Amendment right of free speech.
My objection here is that we don’t need more but less litigation in our society (no developed country is more litigious than ours) and that TV advertising lures the injured to the loudest and cheapest advertised law firms rather than the most reputable and professional. The Chicago Bar Association had it just right, but was overruled by the highest court of the land.
The case of election candidates is only different in the sense that it is a seasonal phenomenon that occurs when national elections are on the horizon. But boy, once it starts – and it starts way too early - there seems to be no end to it. Here too we have the First Amendment to the Constitution to thank for the blessing of abundant, mind numbing, misleading and repetitive advertising. As far as I can see the only beneficiaries of this interpretation of the First Amendment are the owners of the TV stations and the cable companies who have a bonanza every couple of years because of the frequency and breadth of our national elections. You have to wonder how many of them would cease to exist if this gravy train did not come along with predictable regularity.
The most serious objection I have in this case is that there is no requirement of informative content. On the contrary in political advertising it is “anything goes”. We call it negative advertising for a reason. There is a cottage industry built on tracking the veracity of political advertisements and the “truth meter” hardly ever hits the top. As distasteful it is to be putting down your opponent with half-truths, out-of context references or even complete lies, the real damage to the public is done by the fact that candidates have no obligation whatsoever to explain in their advertisements what they will and will not do once they are elected. In fact, they work very hard at keeping the voters guessing, knowing full well that they would not be elected if they disclosed their agenda beforehand. How can a candidate, once chosen, ever declare that he has a mandate when he never declared up front what he stands for?
Will the time ever come that we will rid ourselves of TV commercials for things that should not be advertised at all to the public at large? Don’t hold your breath, but if that time comes: “You want to be ready when the time is right”, if you know what I mean!