Advertising and propaganda

Our emotions are often used to sell us stuff and ideas. Some images make us remember good things and good times. Some ideals make us feel noble. When a company or political party wants to gain our support, their advertising appeals to these hot buttons. While we each have our own buttons, some things like small business, family farms, families, mothers, grandparents, apple pies, the US Constitution, and patriotism are common among many of us. These ideas and images are used in advertising and in political debate to win us over.

Food grown on a large scale, perhaps in another country, contracted to and processed by a multinational corporation and distributed through a chain with stores around the world is sold as “farm fresh.” The label pictures a picturesque hip-roofed red barn with white fences filled with cows, horses, pigs and chickens. A two-story farm house with a porch is often included. Sometimes farmers in bibbed overalls and pitchforks stand out front. Why? This is not a realistic picture of the majority of farms. These images, however, evoke emotion in us and we are likely to think that the product is wholesome and good. Farmers, after all have a high trust rating. Consumers are far more likely to trust a farmer than a corporate executive. Putting a picture of a CEO on the label would not generate many sales. Instead of depicting the thousands of miles and factories involved in getting the food to your table, the advertising uses the positive image of farmers to sell something far removed from the farmer who may have grown the raw product.

Just as most of our food travels a couple thousand miles from the farm to our plate and is really not that “fresh” anymore, much of the debate that calls upon our emotional responses about family, mom and pop businesses, smells just as stale when you dig deeper. Advertising uses the same techniques as propaganda.

The media is full of political advertising these days. Both sides of the measures on the next ballot have been busy, especially the measure seeking to enact the repeal of our state’s property taxes. Both sides have tried to appeal to our emotions. The opponents talk about loss of “local control.” We all like to be in control. And, while this is a legitimate concern, it is also an emotional button which resonates with many of us.

Recently I attended a debate by proponents and opponents of Measure 2. Both sides presented their sides well.

My attitude regarding the initiated measure to amend the North Dakota Constitution to ban property taxes (Measure 2) is based on my serving as a school board member for ten years and from decades of being married to a township clerk. These experiences have given me insight into how taxes are levied, how they are spent and how levies are regulated.

The proponents are right. There are inequalities and problems with this tax, just as there is with any tax. Property taxes are not the most progressive tax, nor are they entirely regressive. They are not based on your ability to pay as is income tax. Generally, however, people who own more land or a more expensive house are also able to generate more income and have a greater ability to pay taxes. Sales taxes and use taxes may seem to be based on income and ability to pay, but the percentages paid by the poor who spend all their income is high. However, sales tax for the rich, as a percentage of income, is much lower because they are able to invest or save more of their income.

The proponents of eliminating property taxes repeatedly raised the image of people being booted out of their homes because they could not pay their property taxes. According to them, the elderly are regularly being made homeless because they can no longer pay their taxes. The example of a family whose mother was fighting cancer being forced out of their home was used as an example of the draconian nature of property tax. My guess is that their unpaid property taxes are the smallest of their financial problems. No mention was made of unpaid medical bills which are the number one reason for bankruptcy in this country. Still who would be so hard hearted as to not be moved by such tragic and sad stories.

I don’t know if property tax is the best and most equitable way to fund local governments. It is not always fair. It is no more complex nor simple than any other tax. Property valuations are not always accurate. Homestead credits may be out of date and need to be adjusted to reflect current market realities.

My concern with Measure 2 is that it seems a bit like the movie, “Field of Dreams.” There is an attitude by supporters of this amendment of just do it and worry about the details later. It seems unrealistic to me that the services now paid for by property taxes will be paid for by other sources of income unless those taxes rise. Who will pay those taxes? Are those taxes more equitably levied? It is proposed that the funds needed for local governments will be allocated by some vaguely defined committee. Will this committee be elected by and be accountable to voters? Which voters? Does the plan recognize “fair” is not always the same as “equitable?” If fixing property taxes is impossible, how is a fair alternative possible?

I cannot support this amendment because I think the plan is not complete and some of the arguments are flawed.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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One thought on “Advertising and propaganda

  1. Jerold Bietz

    Janet – Your writing is truly a breath of fresh air. As someone from Mayville, with a wife from Walhalla, it’s hard to believe that writing of the quality you produce is apparently primarily for the Cavalier newspaper. Perhaps some of your insightful columns could appear in our horrible local newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star, in place of some of the awful biased columnists they choose to run!

    Keep up the good work!

    Jerry Bietz

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