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Do Political Ads Even Work?

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Coppock’s research on ads (some of which was conducted with Vavreck as a co-author) is experimental, often based on reactions to specific commercials. But he acknowledged the gaps in what is provable relating to TV ads as he admitted, “We are in the dark ages in doing experiments here.”

A prime example of uncertainty is whether in free-spending races there is a saturation point when an additional commercial fails to have any effect. It seems logical, but proving it is akin to finding the great white whale. “We didn’t find a point of diminishing returns,” Sides said, but he theorized that it probably exists. In the context of a campaign, there is always pressure to put more money on TV. Part of it is a competitive instinct and part of it, frankly, is that many consultants are paid on the basis of the size of the media buy. “Clearly, this is an industry where nobody knows what’s effective,” Coppock said. “And everyone involved says, ‘You have to do more.’”

There is widespread agreement among political scientists that the persuasive effects of a campaign ad last about as long as a box of chocolate chip cookies in a break room. But what is intriguing is the situation in Ohio where Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan dominated the airwaves over the summer while his GOP rival, JD Vance, did not air a single spot until August after winning a bruising May primary. Over a four-week period before Labor Day, Ryan aired 5,503 TV ads, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, dwarfing Vance’s modest buy. But will Ryan’s early advertising advantage matter in November? “I’m inclined to think that Ryan’s early advantage isn’t worth nothing,” Sides said, “but it’s not worth very much.” Ridout, however, makes the point, “We know from psychology that early impressions stick. And if you get the impression that Tim Ryan is a good guy fighting for the working class, it will take more negative ads to dislodge it.”

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