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'400 percent tax hike' needs to specify, 'tobacco'

A key word is missing from the ads opposing Measure 4, the proposed increase in North Dakota's tobacco tax.

The word is "tobacco."

Opponents of the law should recast the ads to include the word. Because as soon as voters spot its absence, they resent the attempt to manipulate them. And then they look skeptically at the rest of the ad, too.

After all, if an ad deliberately omits such a vital piece of information, what else is it omitting?

The ads we're referring to are the ones that instruct, "Say no to North Dakota's 400 percent tax increase."

It's easy to see where the ads got the idea for that theme. After all, the state's main anti-Measure 4 group calls itself, "North Dakotans Against the 400 Percent Tax Increase."

But the fact is, Measure 4 is not calling for an overall 400 percent tax increase, as that message and slogan would have voters believe.

It's not property taxes that would go up by 400 percent, in other words.

It's not sales taxes. It's not income taxes.

It's tobacco taxes. Which means that if Measure 4 passes, the only groups that will feel the pain will be a) smokers, e-cigarette users and other users of tobacco products, and b) the shops and manufacturers that sell cigarettes and the other products.

Any way you count them, those groups add up to a decided minority of North Dakotans. That's why the missing word is so important, because the words "400 percent tax increase" imply a much more widespread effect than do the words, "400 percent tobacco tax increase."

This is a truth-in-advertising editorial, not an editorial about the merits of the measure. This also is an editorial about advertising effectiveness. Because in our view, it's much better to be honest and up front in ad campaigns from the start. That way, you get off on the right foot with readers and listeners, who appreciate your honesty and the care with which you're making your case.

And good impressions of that sort make people more receptive to the rest of the message, too.

Conversely, telling something that's almost — though not quite — a lie leaves customers with a bad taste. Think about the proposal from a few years ago to devote a percentage of North Dakota's oil tax revenues to conservation. Remember the conservationists' ad featuring a rugged Badlands landscape — and the backlash, when sharp observers noticed that the picture showed the Badlands in South Dakota?

That was a careless mistake on the conservationists' part, which they quickly admitted. But the damage was done, as it always is when ads come across as deceptive in some key way.

Here's the bottom line: Calling the measure a "400 percent tax increase" is truthful but misleading. The measure is proposing a 400 percent tobacco tax increase — and opponents should make that clear from the start.