Why Political Ads on TV Stink

We are quickly entering the political crazy season (I gave up calling it “silly” because the situation is much too serious for that). For those of us in swing states or counties, we are about to be besieged by an historic level of TV ad spending. And most of that spending will, I suggest, be waste. In fact, political ads on TV taken as a whole will mostly serve to drive up cynicism in our political process and candidates and drive down interest in the outcome of elections.


This is because the vast majority of political ads on TV stink, and do very little to move public support for or against any candidate. In the 2012 presidential election, a study by political scientist John Sides and UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck looked at the ads of the two candidates, and found very small and ephemeral effects from even massive ad buys.

Most ads are deployed defensively (to counter the opponents’ noise level) and, in fact, TV political ads have become more negative over time – and lower feelings of trust in government, among other things.

But why do these ads stink? After all, lots of time, effort and expense go into making them.

I would suggest that the answer lies in Steve Job’s famous quote that, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Political ads are, very fundamentally, designed by us — the TV viewer — and we are then overwhelmed by a singular visual diet of the same endlessly repeated messages we say that we want.

When political campaigns develop ads, they carefully test the underlying messages and the ads themselves with focus groups. Political ads may, in fact, be the most carefully tested ads in existence. The trouble is that all focus groups — Republicans, Democrats, young, old, crazy, sane — tend to react similarly to broad themes and visuals. Dark clouds, deep shadows and a Voice of God talking about how we “can’t trust” an opposing candidate tend to do well. So then ALL political ads start to look alike, and this is particularly true when the viewer is hammered by them in heavy rotation. One ad by one candidate may make sense, but eight similar ads by many candidates tend to completely wash-over the viewer — and the only message that we actually receive is that we can’t trust anyone. We may all say that we love ice cream, but once our diet consists of nothing but Chunky Monkey, we get turned-off on food altogether.

The political ad space is absolutely desperate for new approaches, and for ad-makers who are willing to go where consumers don’t know they want to be yet, as opposed to where they are. Given my perch, I think that the print and digital editions of newspapers are a great and deeply undervalued place to look for solutions. The digital audience engaging with newspaper content reached a new high in August 2015 with 179 million adult unique visitors—a 10 percent increase since August 2014. Further, newspaper media scores the highest out of all media—television included—when it comes to consumer engagement and it is the most trusted source for advertising.

And why not invest more money into newspapers’ platforms? Based on audience and engagement levels, it is certainly more beneficial than endless additional rounds of expensive dark clouds and Voices of God telling us things that we absolutely aren’t listening to anymore.

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