What is conventional wisdom for some may not be for others. On the topic of the effectiveness of campaign advertising, political consultants and operatives have often been at odds with political scientists. While political consultants tend to believe that political advertising “works,” scholars have long cast doubt on ads’ capacity to affect voter preferences in any meaningful way. Social scientists have argued that voters consume media, including advertising, selectively and that they tend to discount messages and information they encounter that are inconsistent with their preexisting beliefs. As a result, the scholars have tended to argue, ads can reinforce voters’ views and preferences, but they are unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
This so-called “minimal effects” thesis has been under attack in recent years by scholars who have found increasing evidence of the effectiveness of political media and advertising. The latest evidence demonstrating the ability of campaign ads to persuade voters is put forth by two political scientists, Travis n. Ridout of Washington State University and Michael M. Franz of Bowdoin College, in their new book, The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising, coming out this month from Temple University Press.
The book offers a comprehensive overview of political advertising and its changing role in the Internet age, with an emphasis on television advertising. Marshalling an impressive amount of empirical evidence from recent elections, the authors examine precisely how ads function and influence voters in a variety of campaign environments. Combining survey data with advertising data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project, the authors show how contextual factors moderate ad effectiveness; how negativity and emotional appeals matter; and how the characteristics of targeted voters and coverage of ads in the news media can mediate the extent of advertising’s influence.
Among their findings is that ads have greater influence in highly competitive races and on voting for challengers as opposed to incumbents. They also reveal that fear and anger ads sometimes work as their sponsors intend, but provoke backlash at other times. Negative ads work sometimes and are ineffective in other scenarios, while promotional ads and ads that appeal to voter enthusiasm essentially never result in backlash. It has been argued that voters with low levels of political knowledge are immune to persuasive messages, but the authors also find that some ads can effectively persuade these voters. Moreover, they report that analyses show that partisans are more responsive to ads than independent voters are. Ridout and Franz also consider the impact of the Internet and ads that “go viral” in campaigns, asserting that television advertising will remain relevant despite the growth of online advertising. These findings all have the potential to help manage consultants’ expectations about the impact of political advertising campaigns and help guide targeting and media buying decisions.
The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising makes a compelling case that exposure to campaign advertising exerts widespread influence on the choices voters make at the ballot box. The authors’ incisive analyses and interpretations leave little doubt that campaign ads help shape voter preferences and detail some of the crucial nuances of these effects that have long remained unexamined. This timely and well-written book is a fine example of social science that is highly relevant and readily applicable to practical politics. The authors’ arguments, supported with ample empirical evidence, help to demystify the impact of political advertising and to debunk myths and conventional wisdom that ascribes little impact to political ads. The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising is a must-read for those involved in professional politics, especially political media and advertising specialists.
Mark Ruggiero is a freelance writer who resides in New York.