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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

All is not Fair...

Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (AP Photo/File)

Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump (AP Photo/File)

in love, war, and running for president

Hana S. Callaghan

(AP Photo/File)

The presidential campaign hit an all-time low last week when, prior to the Utah primary, an anti-Trump super pac called “Make America Awesome!” posted online a picture of Melania Trump posing nude for GQ magazine.  The caption of the ad read, “Meet Melania Trump: Your Next First Lady.” On the bottom of the picture were the words, “Or you can support Ted Cruz.”  The photo was taken in 2000 when Melania Trump was a model and prior to her marriage to Donald Trump.  

Cruz quickly distanced himself from the ad asserting the ad did not come from his campaign or any organization affiliated with his campaign. Trump placed blame squarely on Cruz implying illegal coordination with the super pac.   

Whether or not Trump can prove that Cruz was behind the ad, the question remains, “Is the ad by the super pac ethical?”

At the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, where I work, we don’t go around putting the “stamp of approval or disapproval” on the individual actions of politicians or political action committees, but we do try to provide a framework -for politicians, super pacs, and voters—to determine for themselves whether campaign communications are ethical.  

We start with the premise that the American process for electing public officials is born out of the ethical ideal of creating an informed electorate.  It is the campaign’s task to introduce the candidate and inform the voters about the candidate’s background, his or her positions on the issues, and how the candidate is different from the opponent.  Political ads fulfill their purpose of informing the electorate if the content of the ad is true, if it is fair, and if it is relevant.

How should voters analyze the Melania Trump ad?  The first inquiry is whether the ad is truthful. The ad features a GQ cover photo for which Mrs. Trump voluntarily posed.  In that regard it is a true portrayal and not doctored for the purposes of the political ad.  The inference could be deemed deceptive, however, because it implies that the photo is a current depiction of Mrs. Trump and that it illustrates how she will conduct herself as first lady.  

Is the ad fair?  Voters should ask was Trump given enough time to respond before the Utah primary.  Was this an unfair last minute surprise?  It is important to an informed electorate that voters have all of the relevant information before voting—not just the allegations from one side.

Is the ad relevant?  The fact that the subject of the photo is not the candidate but rather is his wife, the fact that the photo was taken 16 years ago, the fact that it was taken before they were married, all lead to the conclusion that the ad has no relevance to the issues facing the voters in this presidential election. The motivation behind a negative attack is germane to whether an attack piece is ethical.  Voters should ask themselves whether an ad is designed purely to appeal to inherent bias or whether the content of the ad is pertinent to a legitimate interest in the race.

In order to run an ethical campaign, candidates must be vigilant that all communications authorized by them are truthful, fair, and relevant. What should a candidate do in a situation such as this where an outside group produces an unethical communication seemingly on the candidate’s behalf?  At the very outset of the campaign a candidate should announce a commitment to ethical advertising.  If a super pac produces an ad that does not comport with the candidate’s standards, it is imperative that the candidate immediately and loudly denounce the ad, publicly disapproving its contents.  Whether Cruz’ disavowal of the ad meets this standard is for the voters to decide.  

Hana S. Callaghan is the director of Government Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  She teaches the MOOC How to Run an Ethical Campaign—and Win.

Mar 30, 2016

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