Political attack ads are a prevalent and unfortunate aspect of our political system. They attempt to scale down and distort complex facts and ideas to make them understandable to the general public. In a need for quick understanding they use plain language in order to make their points short and easy to absorb. While they make large ideas understandable they also run the chance of distorting what the actual facts are, which is exactly what they are aiming for.
While plain style writing has its merits in clarity it can also be vague and is allowed to omit specific details. Attack ads are allowed to make simple statements without having to back them up. Claims such as “Scott Walker’s reforms added 150,000 jobs in Wisconsin.” This is a bold statement that is clear and concise but fails to give any specific information. In opposition another ad might claim “Since Scott Walker took office Wisconsin has dropped down to 49th in job growth.” While both of these statements are easy to understand, calculating in at a 4th grade reading level, they also leave a lot questions as to the credibility of either statement.
“Scott Walker’s reforms added 150,000 jobs in Wisconsin” clearly uses an active voice. It directly describes “Scott Walker’s reforms” adding jobs to Wisconsin. The use of active voice is a defining characteristic of the plain style and a prevalent feature in attack ad statements. The use of an active voice is more attention grabbing and usually easier to understand. In addition it adds emphasis to a person or their actions having a direct consequence. It makes it clear who they are accusing and what they have done. There is a level of certainty offered when using an active voice, it sounds confident and assertive making simple statements seem irrefutable. “Scott Walker’s reforms added 150,000 jobs in Wisconsin”, there is no argument here and it is clear what is happening. This is a concerning and abusive use of plain style.
Plain style also limits the use of jargon. When appealing to the masses, or subliminally feeding them information, the use of jargon unfamiliar to the large majority of voters does not work well when making a point. The statements previously mentioned do not use any jargon or even approximate the use of it. In government and public policy there is a large amount of jargon, allowing the use of it to slip during ads provides another level of vagueness.
During the 2012 presidential election there were a number of attack ads from both sides of the spectrum that utilized plain language in a skewed way. One ad from the Romney campaign claimed that president Obama’s healthcare law “creates an unaccountable new board that can cut Medicare benefits with no notice — and no one, not even Congress can stop it.” This statement is based in fact but uses plain and simplified language to skew its meaning. In reality, “The Independent Payment Advisory Board, by law, cannot cut benefits, and it is accountable to Congress, which can vote to reject the board’s recommendations”—factcheck.org. Another instance that attacks the same healthcare law stated that it “cuts Medicare by $716 billion.” This is completely true, however, when examined more closely the effect of the law would just slow the future growth of Medicare spending by $716 billion over the course of 10 years, and specifically through cutbacks in expenditures to medical providers.
One could say that both of these statements are true, however without further context or explanation they shed a false light on actual facts. The statements are equally readable and relay information to the public in a fast and effective manor, but they abuse the purpose of plain style and trade in its strengths for a skewed purpose. Plain style can be a great thing in the world of writing when complex ideas can be explained fully in a style that is accessible to the majority of readers. The exploitation of this is effective in the manor to which its abusers intend and I fear that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.