Is Political Advertising Obsolete?
Analysts forecast that total advertising spending on U.S. elections and political advocacy campaigns in 2024 will amount to an astonishing $10 billion to $17 billion, making American politics “the 10th largest ad market in the world, surpassing all of Australia,” according to Axios. These forecasts examine projected ad spending on traditional platforms—television, radio, billboards, direct mail—plus spending on digital and other streaming platforms that are increasingly the norm with widespread broadband and mobile data use.
The people who will make, sell, buy, and place all these political ads in 2024 (and raise outside money to pay for them) clearly have a vested interest in saying these advertisements are vital to successful electoral and issue campaigns.
But are political ads even marginally effective these days? Do people pay attention to political ads, let alone believe the information presented in billions of dollars of cheesy candidate profiles, misleading negative attacks, and one-sided issue presentations?
That’s hard to tell. It’s very difficult to assess these questions empirically, which is part of the reason political ad spending goes on unimpeded. “Can’t risk missing out on the action or taking another jab at one’s opponents! It might be the difference in a close race—you never know. Doesn’t matter if they work, gotta have something to show the candidates and donors.”
Outside of industry hot air, we do have some data from Americans themselves suggesting that much of this political ad money goes up in smoke.
For example, YouGov did an interesting test in 2022 re-asking questions about political advertising from the 1980s to see if anything had noticeably changed over the years. Based on a CBS News question from 1984, YouGov asked respondents how much attention they pay to political advertisements compared to other kinds of television ads. As seen in their chart below, half of all adults in 1984 said they give political and other ads equal attention compared to less than four in ten in 2022. More importantly, nearly half of adults in 2022 said they pay less attention to political advertising than they do to other types of ads—a huge jump from 1984 in the percentage of Americans saying they tune out most political content.
YouGov repeated another question examining the self-reported influence of political advertising finding that nearly six in ten Americans in 2022 felt that advertisements about candidates had “no influence at all” on how they personally vote—up from four in ten adults in 1986.
The political ad industry will of course claim that many Americans say they aren’t influenced by ads, but they know voters really are influenced by ads in some subliminal or indirect manner (particularly negative ads). And perhaps, as some industry promoters claim, political advertising on new social media and other digital platforms will end up being more successful than traditional television advertising which has run its course.
But these claims should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism.
For example, although around three in ten adults in 2022 agreed that negative advertising helps them learn something about candidates, according to the YouGov data, it’s not at all clear what cumulative effects waves of competing negative advertisements have on people. Do negative ads reinforce clear messages, cancel each other out, confuse voters, or just end up as background noise during sports and show breaks?
It’s certainly possible that negative ads adversely impact candidates or issue fights where voters don’t have enough knowledge or information to make an initial assessment (assuming that these ads are seen in the first place). Conversely, it’s also possible that negative ads merely tell partisans what they want to hear about an opponent or reinforce previously held opinions on an issue battle without really convincing any undecided people one way or the other.
The core problem for political parties and candidates—and by extension their advertisements—is that most Americans despise all of them and don’t believe anything they are saying. Only eight percent of Americans expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress according 2023 Gallup polling—the lowest rated institution in American life. They also don’t trust activist groups pushing inflammatory arguments about their preferred policy outcomes.
So the political and issue ad industry basically burns huge sums of money convincing the average American voter of only one thing: “I really hate politics and don’t trust what candidates and activists are trying to sell me.” Not a very good business model—or something that improves American democracy and public discourse.
In contrast to other forms of advertising, the trust and delivery gap between political ad purveyors and voters appears to be a chasm too far to bridge.
Although corporations overall don’t enjoy tremendous trust from Americans, certain corporate brands do elicit genuine trust from consumers who can vouch for their products, services, or prices. And even though sophisticated viewers increasingly tune out a lot of corporate advertising, it clearly has some measurable impact on keeping customers, reaching new ones, and enhancing brand status or else companies would spend their money on other consumer marketing techniques.
(On the other hand, the CEO of a major insurance company told me many years ago that advertising only really works on the margins in terms of brand recognition and consumer behavior and only if a company spends hundreds of millions of dollars to saturate the market—which probably explains why most contemporary sports matches are polluted with auto, insurance, beer, drug, and gambling advertisements repeated over and over again.)
Corporate ads perform better than political ones simply because consumers are more likely to believe and like what many companies are selling while the opposite is true for politicians—few Americans believe anything they say or have confidence that they will deliver on their promises.
Trust is everything in terms of communication.
One thing we do know that works in terms of political persuasion and mobilization is the network effect—that is people listening to, trusting, and acting on information from close friends, family members, colleagues, or other social circles that serve as critical validators for what political candidates and parties are saying. This is why social media strategies and the development of “closed-loop” partisan information and media circuits have become so prominent in the past decade.
But if political arguments and ideas travel better and more efficiently through social networks, or through other free media coverage, then why are the political parties and activist groups continuing to raise and spend outlandish sums of money every cycle on political ads?
Good question—one that the people paying the ad bills ought to ask themselves in 2024.