The Politics of Distraction: A Call for a Fresh Look at Ad Effects

Lab Fellows Michael Jones and Paul Jorgensen publish a new study in the Journal of Political Marketing on political television advertisements' influence (or otherwise) on congressional election results. Their results, also reported in USA Today, are further explained for both scholarly and non-academic audiences in this blog entry, written for the Lab.

Every election cycle millions of American’s without TiVo are subjected to advertisement after advertisement about political candidates.  Media outlets cover the advertisements as if they are legitimate news in of themselves and many a political scientist has built a case for tenure around the study of advertisements. Thus the candidate who runs the ad, the media who report on the ad, and political scientists who analyze the ad, are all convinced that ads are necessary to win elections. Of course, while they think ads matter we citizens are doing our best to limit exposure to the toxin poured into our communication environment every election cycle. Given these two truisms — that elites think ads matter and that the rest of us go out of our way to prove them wrong — we asked what turned out to be a pretty novel question: do political advertisements influence congressional election outcomes? Based upon our recent analysis of congressional elections from 2000 to 2004, the short answer is no.

The long answer is more nuanced, but we think the nuance can be summed up in essentially three points.  First, and despite being highly visible annoyances for most of us, ads are actually quite uncommon. According to our data, most of the congressional elections between 2000 and 2004 had no advertisements whatsoever. In these cases the races are almost always non-competitive — we don’t even really need elections for most of these districts let alone a campaign. Second, in the elections where advertisements were aired, if one side advertises a whole bunch, then so does the other side — the advertisements drown each other out. Third, there is a statistically significant effect — ads are influencing what percent of the two-party vote a candidate gets, just rarely is it even close to enough to determine the winner or loser of a race.

Despite the nuance, we are not going to tell you that ads matter for congressional election outcomes. Our data simply do not indicate they do. In fact, we are excited about our ability to throw an empirical pebble onto the levy of “small ad effects” conjectures that political science has been building “…for at least a decade or more.” Why?  Because in parsing out that ad effects are inconsequential in nearly all congressional election outcomes, our analysis indirectly shed some light on what is likely to matter in campaigns.  In short, we found more influential effects in our models for non-airing expenditures — payment for staff, literature, and other activities associated with the ground game; however, given some recent cogent summaries concerning the state of advertisement knowledge, we think it is time to research political advertising from a critical approach, one that can incorporate institutional corruption.

Media coverage and research into political advertising misses a point only made in passing by those concerned with negative ads: political advertising harms our democracy. Although individuals and groups try, the main effect of advertisements may not be in changing public perception, mobilizing/demobilizing voters, or even in altering the outcome of an election. On the contrary, political marketing agencies (a growth industry) aid and abet politicians in masking policy preferences bought and paid for by big donors. We should all thank Mr. Romney’s advisors and Mr. Ryan for admitting as much publicly. It is high time we examine political advertising as a result of a system of influence, distracting most of us from real politics. Let’s take Murray Edelman to heart, when he writes: “Sometimes politics is not myth or emotional at all, but a cool and successful effort to get money from others or power over them. Perhaps it can be cool and successful for some only because it is also obsessional, mythical, and emotional for some or for all.”


Michael D. Jones                                            Paul D. Jorgensen