Washington DC's Billion Dollar Dystopian Fiction Farm

Some $4 billion poured into TV campaign ads this year, which are becoming better produced and more negative—many are essentially works of speculative fiction. This may be the year that Washington came to rival Hollywood as a mass producer of dystopian...

Nov 7 2014, 1:00pm

Wade 2014 election ad / YouTube screenshot

A bright yellow 'Caution' sign is in your face, and it's stamped 'Ebola Zone.' A heart monitor bleeps ominously in the background. A skeletal figure in a hazmat suit fades in, and he's holding a sign: 'Why won't Chris Coons stop Ebola?' Eventually, the beep drags out into a single solemn tone, that drone of cardiac arrest, and red computer text covers the black: Don't Take a Chance on Delaware's Future.

Election season may be the most productive factory of speculative fiction we've got running. Our screens teem with short cautionary tales about what might come to pass if the wrong candidate gets elected, and sunny little stories about the future that awaits us if the right one does.

The great bulk of this fiction takes the form of television ads, which enter the airwaves as a polite trickle early in an election year but end as an outraged flood on voting day (they are of course also circulated on YouTube, where their producers hope they will go viral). In 2014, a record amount of cash was spent producing those fictions; according to the Hollywood Reporter, as much as $4 billion was spent on television advertising for political campaigns. Not all of these are fabrications, obviously—some are meet-the-candidate fare or straight-laced criticisms of policy. But the vast majority are propelled by a speculative engine; many employ the conventions of TV drama, and some dip fully into macabre fantasy.

A great many skewed negative this year, too—over 51 percent of Senate ads, according to Wesleyan Media Analysis, compared to just 26 percent deemed to be positive.

So, essentially, billions of dollars were spent producing and distributing dystopian visions of the future this year. Some of these were tiny, niggling speculative fictions that encouraged the viewer to imagine a world where incompetent, self-serving functionaries were holding public office; a future marked by higher taxes, inattention from Washington, and representation that does not share the policy preferences of the common man.

Many, many others, of course, struck a more ominous tone: They projected a nascent reality in which savage, America-hating terrorists are about to storm the borders and deadly super viruses are on the brink of infecting you and everyone you know.

According to a Bloomberg report, "ads invoking Ebola ran 734 times between Oct. 21-25, compared with a total of 484 tracked by CMAG in months prior." That means that even excluding the last week before the election, there were approximately 300 times as many ad broadcasts about Ebola than there were actual Ebola cases in the US. In most of these dramas, the implication is unambiguous: with the wrong vote, a hellish, diseased dystopia awaits. The message was little different with prevalent anti-ISIS military fanfic, which also figured heavily in campaign ads and rhetoric.

In fact, here's a good plot description of this election year's marquee dystopia, courtesy of the Republican National Committee:

"ISIS, gaining ground. Terrorists committing mass murder. Ebola inside the US. Americans alarmed about national security. What's Obama doing? Making plans to bring terrorists from Guantanamo to our country."

We expect campaign ads to stretch the truth and indulge in fear-mongering, but that text, pulled straight from the official national committee of one of the nation's two major political parties, reads like the back cover of a Tom Clancy novel.

While most of the ISIS ads were produced by Republicans, it should be noted that the Ebola dystopia was perpetrated in highly bipartisan fashion: Senate Democratic hopeful Michelle Nunn ran the most (over 250), followed closely by the Republican incumbent representative Steve King (240). Regardless of who's selling it, according to political scientists, you may be inclined to take it seriously, whether you'd like to or not.

"When skillfully used, television's multiple modes of communication and powerful ability to orient attention can invite strong, unthinking negative responses in low-involvement viewers," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the University of Pennsylvania communications professor and founder of FactCheck.Org wrote in her 1993 book, Dirty Politics. "And, by overloading our information-processing capacity with rapidly paced information, televised political ads can short circuit the normal defenses that more educated, more highly involved viewers ordinarily marshal against suspect claims."

That the average American should worry about an ISIS siege or an Ebola pandemic on American soil is pure fiction—but thanks to the ever-expanding role of spending in campaigns, it's now a very big budget fiction.

"Who will keep us safe?"

Consider this: in 2013, Hollywood's total revenue during summer blockbuster season (from May until Labor Day) was $4.71 billion. That puts the election ad machine in very roughly the same ballpark as Hollywood as a mass culture producer, at least in terms of financial power during election cycles.

That's fairly incredible, especially considering the brevity of most political ads—though quality and production values are improving, as more money is being spent on each narrative.

"It is part of a midterm election cycle with a focus on control of the Senate that is the most expensive overall of all time," the Reporter explains. "The spend on broadcast advertising alone from Jan. 2013 until Oct. 23, 2014 is about $1.8 billion, even though there were fewer total ads run than in the past." (The rest aired on cable.) This cycle, a good deal more money was spent on campaign ads than last, but fewer were produced over all. Slicker, more carefully constructed fictions are the order of the day.

Consider that a single blockbuster film or major TV series can help steer the cultural zeitgeist—with the help of their relentless advertising campaigns—film posters, trailers, cast interviews on talk shows—The Dark Knight had us contemplating total anarchy, Avatar landed environmental destruction at the water cooler, and The Walking Dead now has tens of millions of viewers making routine visits to the end of the world.

Whether you're a fan of zombies or not, you're aware that they're a cornerstone of pop culture. And The Walking Dead, the biggest show on television, period—has a budget of $2.8 million per episode. At thirteen episodes a season, the entire cost of producing The Walking Dead is about $40 million a year, counting marketing and so forth. By way of comparison, $113 million was spent on advertising in the North Carolina Senate race alone. Not all of that went into producing speculative fiction, but a good deal of it did:

"While ISIS grew, Obama kept waiting. And Kay Hagan kept quiet. The price for their failure is danger."

Obviously, money spent does not translate directly into cultural capital, but it does mean that these little televised dystopias are relentlessly making their way in front of millions of eyeballs. So what's the cumulutive effect of billions of dollars worth of campaign ads, approximately $2 billion worth of which is starkly negative? It's hard to say, exactly. But, as those budgets grow and the messaging aims to scare voters about the future, it does suggest that the American people are increasingly experiencing politics as a markedly dystopian enterprise.

"Voters no longer experience politics firsthand but rather through the eyes and ears of the mass media system," Karen S. Johnson-Cartee and Gary Copeland write in their 2013 book, Negative Political Advertising: Coming of Age. "From the mass media we obtain symbols, which we then interpret, redefine, and alter through our communication with other people."

Those symbols included ISIS beheading footage, American flags, an empty wheelchair, furrowed brows, skeet-shooting guns, old white men, and hazmat suits. If that mass media system is producing dramatic narratives to advertise the political system, a narrative built out of that pessimistic stew is precisely what voters are seeing.

Thanks to a huge boom in campaign spending, a hardened consensus that negative ads "work," and, perhaps, an apocalyptic streak in recent pop culture that pairs well with political doomsaying, our political apparatus has become a powerful and efficient producer and amplifier of dystopian fictions. This trend, while bursting now, has been underway for over a decade.

"Recognizing the medium's ability to transmit messages dramatically, rapidly, and widely, candidates for high office have increasingly built their campaign strategies around television in general and television advertising in particular," a team of Rutgers researchers wrote in The Effects of Negative Political Advertisements, published in the American Political Science Review. That was in 1999. The authors note that the 1996 presidential campaign saw the then-impressive sum of $100 million pour into "electronic advertising" like TV ads, which constituted 60 percent of both the Dole and Clinton campaigns' budget. That now seems impossibly quaint.

But televised dystopian campaign fiction goes back far further than that. One of the first big budget attack ads ever rolled out presented the ultimate speculative dystopia—Lyndon Johnson's 'Daisy', which famously depicts a child picking flower petals under the thumb of a nuclear holocaust and a narration that echoed W.H Auden's dark poem "September 1, 1939." It only aired once during prime time before the campaign chose to pull it, but not before it had set off waves of anger and fear.

"Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

"Fifty years ago, Democrats launched a new era in political advertising with the blistering Daisy television spot, a powerful and emotional advertisement that played to the worst fears of the electorate," writes Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton.

This is exactly what effective dystopian fiction does. The popular speculative sci-fi tales of the era ( Dr. Strangelove, Planet of the Apes, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Twilight Zone) trafficked in a similar general narrative; 'Daisy' just politicized the ending.

Predictably, the most watched negative ads of today borrow popular tropes and visual cues from mass market fiction; witness the hazmat-and-corpse heavy spot (shades of Outbreak, Walking Dead) about how Republican budget cuts will get you killed by Ebola, which has collected hundreds of thousands of YouTube views.

Vote Republican, and the future will look like this.

These dystopias are remarkably popular—in the US, the apocalypse is bigger than football. Which makes sense, considering their audience is comprised of people who are anxious about the future, perhaps more than ever: Exit polls showed that a record number of voters, a full half, believed that the next generation of Americans will have it worse than the last. That's the highest percentage since such exit polling began in 1996. Sixty-five percent thought the country was headed "seriously off the wrong track," which is a lot. No doubt fueling both traditional wellsprings of fiction and the politically motivated variety, and help drive the dystopic outlook of both, which, presumably, further escalates the anxiety. 

But what's the impact of all this dystopian politicking? Is our political future looking increasingly gloomy and dramatic—is getting primed for the polls going to feel a lot more like watching an epidemic film from here on out? And if so, how will that affect voting, or the political system?

The aforementioned 1999 Rutgers study concluded that "negative political ads appear to be no more effective than positive ads and do not seem to have especially detrimental effects on the political system." The mini-dystopias aren't really vote-winners, the researchers concluded—aspirational messages and positive stories about the future worked just as well.

Yet a 2009 study published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media found that "negative commercials may lead to greater candidate image discrimination and greater attitude polarization than their positive counterparts." Interestingly, however, they still don't really appear to motivate voters much. "Negative and positive commercials did not differ, however, in their effects on involvement in the election, communication behavior regarding the election, and likelihood of turning out to vote in the election."

So, all this apocalyptica isn't getting us to the polls, though it is ostensibly helping us decide who to blame for blowing things up—which is interesting, because that's a similar refrain we often hear from critics of our recent apocalypse-skewing culture. Critics like Douglas Rushkoff say that our end times obsession is corrosive to society because it discourages us from wanting to take the time to fix things; if the world is going to end anyway, why bother? 

As more cash pours into producing dystopian campaign fiction, and voter turnout sinks to miserable new lows, it seems likelier than ever the American people will keep on thinking the same thing about politics.