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Can political ads influence the outcome of an election?

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, D-Pa., speaks with guests during a rally at the UFCW Local 1776 KS headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., on Saturday, April 16, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, D-Pa., speaks with guests during a rally at the UFCW Local 1776 KS headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., on Saturday, April 16, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The midterms are coming, and your TV’s already been flooded with campaign ads.

But do the ads even work?

Billions of dollars are being spent to reach a small fraction of voters in close races. Is it worth it?

Today, On Point: How political ads influence elections.


Christopher Warshaw, associate professor of political science at George Washington University. Co-author of the study “The Effect of Television Advertising in United States Elections.” (@cwarshaw)

Dan Bayens, co-founder and creative director of Content Creative Media, a Republican advertising firm specializing in TV, radio, and digital content. (@danbayens)

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David Schweidel, marketing professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. (@dschweidel)

Interview Highlights

On midterm advertisements, and whether campaigns are getting their money’s worth

Christopher Warshaw: “The [impact] of television ads is relatively small in most elections. But we have a lot of close elections, and the stakes are just so huge for controlling both the federal government, as well as state and local governments, that trying to take your take your chances on flipping some of these close elections could be worth a lot in terms of policy changes.

“So many of the monumental bills passed over the past two years wouldn’t have passed if not for the Georgia runoff elections. And so all of the ad spending in those elections arguably had a big payoff, even though in absolute terms they didn’t have a huge impact on the elections themselves.”

On the influence of television advertising on campaigns

Christopher Warshaw: “Down ballot, you do see there’s still not huge effects. You see larger effects down ballot than in presidential races. And that’s in large part because people just know less about down ballot candidates. And so the ads are both at a very basic level, probably just literally telling them who the candidates are. And they’re giving them some basic information they probably didn’t have. Where at the presidential level, we all know a lot about Donald Trump and Joe Biden and other presidential candidates. And it’s probably hard for an individual television ad or even a bunch of television ads to give you information you didn’t already have.”

On how voters respond to TV ads

Christopher Warshaw: “In general, you wouldn’t want to ask voters what their sort of psychological process are, because people, you know, it’s a hard thing to self-reflect on. So instead what we did is we compared counties on either side of media market boundaries following some previous academic work that had been done. And across these media market boundaries, the voters in counties are nearly identical. But in fact, there’s large differences in television advertising. And that’s because the way most campaigns buy television advertising is the level of media markets.

“So here in Washington, D.C., there’s a Washington, D.C. media market which includes both Northern Virginia, D.C. itself, as well as Montgomery County, sort of the the Maryland suburbs of D.C. Likewise in Boston, the media market in Boston would include not just Boston itself, but many, many counties all around Boston going all the way into New Hampshire. So we looked at those counties on either side of media market boundaries. What we found is that the counties where a certain candidate had an advantage in terms of their television advertising on that side of the media market boundary, they tended to do a little bit better.”

On how campaign workers view political ads

Dan Bayens: “Paid media is the biggest expense a campaign has, and it’s also the most effective way that a campaign has to reach voters. Ben Smith, who has his own media company but worked for The New York Times and BuzzFeed and Politico, had a great quote, which kind of simplifies things for me.

It was, political campaigns are basically media operations that produce text and images, and video, and audio and try to circulate them and compete for the attention of audiences. And so you’re competing with everything a voter is viewing and seeing and every conversation they’re having. And it’s a difficult task, which you’ve been discussing for the past 20 minutes. I mean, it’s a difficult thing to accomplish.”

On how TV ads persuade voters

Christopher Warshaw: “Clearly, every year more and more money is spent online versus on traditional broadcast television. So according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which is an academic outfit at Wesleyan that tracks ads across campaigns, what they find is that about 20% to 25% of spending in the sort of salient Senate races this year is on digital versus television.

“So on the one hand, that’s still less than a majority, but it’s clearly become a significant share of the advertising. I will say that much of the digital advertising that’s out there is to raise money. It’s not actually aimed at swing voters like television advertising is. So there’s a little bit of a different goal, I think.

“And I think that it’s really difficult for academics to study the digital advertising, because the data is hard to get and we don’t have as clean kind of natural experiments as we do for TV. But I think what we’ll see over the next couple of years, you know, we’re going to learn more and more about how much it’s working.”

On how the advertising business has changed

Dan Bayens: “It’s changed a ton, and it will continue to change greatly over the next decade. We’ve been talking a lot about the proliferation of ads today. You also have to look at a lot of digital platforms are closing the door to political ads. They’re banning political ads. You can’t run them on TikTok. You can’t run them on Twitter. You can’t run them on other platforms. And we haven’t talked a ton about streaming today, but obviously, streaming is exploding as a category for political ads. But there, too, you see some doors being closed.

“Disney Plus is getting ready to have an advertising vertical, and they’ve said no to political ads. And there’s some indications that Netflix is also getting ready to roll out an ad supported platform. They may close the door to political ads, too. So while we see, you know, an incredible kind of fragmentation of media, and there’s more places for everyone to get information, some doors are being closed.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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