Mellman: Koch brothers’ ads shameful

Having a right is not the same thing as being in the right. 

In some instances, we have the right to behave immorally. For example, the First Amendment gives some people, in some circumstances, the right to lie.


Let’s set aside for a moment whether the billionaire Koch brothers have the right to run a flurry of dishonest ads about ObamaCare and ask instead whether spending millions of dollars to mislead and even lie to the American people is the right thing to do.

There is no legitimate debate about the integrity of the ads. In Louisiana, the Kochs’ political front group placed an ad that, to all appearances, features a group of Louisianans opening letters from insurance companies informing them about problems they face as a result of the Affordable Care Act. 

Except that, as ABC News has documented, the individuals in their ad are not Louisianans. They are paid actors who are not reading actual letters sent by any real insurance company. 

In other words, nothing about the ad is true. 

The response from the brothers’ organization: “The viewing public is savvy enough to distinguish between someone giving a personal story and something that is emblematic.” 

Were this an ad for Stainmaster carpet, a Koch product, Federal Trade Commission guidelines would require the ad to “conspicuously disclose that the persons in such advertisements are not actual consumers.” Moreover, the FTC would require them to either demonstrate that these results of ObamaCare are typical or make clear in the ad that they are not. 

Needless to say, the ad meets none of these requirements, thereby conforming to the legal definition of false advertising.

Not all Koch ads feature actors. Even those with real people, though, are not necessarily factual. Witness the attack on Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in a Koch-funded ad featuring a Michigan leukemia patient. 

Everyone sympathizes with her struggle, as well they should. But neither her bravery nor her suffering makes the words she utters true. They aren’t. 

In the ad, the patient claims, with ObamaCare “the out-of-pocket costs are so high, it’s unaffordable.” The Detroit News reports the “ad makes no mention that [the patient] successfully enrolled in a new Blue Cross plan where she’s able to retain her University of Michigan oncologist and continues to receive the life-saving oral chemotherapy. ... The ad also does not mention that [her] health care premiums were cut in half.”

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler did the math. She saved $6,348 a year on premiums. And because ObamaCare caps out-of-pocket costs for individual plans at $6,350, she will be paying, at most, $2 more this year for her care. 

It’s hard to call that an unaffordable increase. 

If it were just these two egregious examples, someone might suggest I’m picking on the Koch brothers. Now, I do not always agree with fact checkers, who are sometimes wrong. But it is striking that PolitiFactreviewed 11 ads placed by the brothers’ organization, and not a single one was rated “true” or even “mostly true.” Nine were rated “false” or worse.

So, I return to my original question. Whatever their constitutional rights, are the Koch brothers right to degrade our democratic process with lies? Are they right to use tactics that are, by legal definitions, deceptive and dishonest? Are voters choosing a candidate due any less respect and honesty than consumers buying carpet? 

We in the consulting profession need to ask ourselves hard questions about where the line is that we won’t cross. When does the pursuit of victory at any cost exact too high a price? When does dishonesty distort democracy? 

Politicians, political parties or media that fail to condemn these tactics, as well as broadcasters that air these ads, and the consultants who make them, are all complicit in the Kochs’ immorality. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.