In early 2012, Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown made an unusual truce. The two Senatorial candidates acknowledged that television advertisement spending had ballooned, and they decided to curb excessive television spending as much as they could. Warren and Brown agreed that their campaigns would donate half the cost of a third-party advertisement that spoke on their behalf to a charity of the opposing candidate’s choosing. The pact worked, and super PAC (campaign funding organizations) money was almost entirely absent from the campaign. That’s frankly shocking, as $90 million was spent in 16 other states with Senate races that year. This truce was widely lauded for staring down super PAC financing and lessening its significance. Unfortunately, this kind of agreement is unlikely to spread, due to the potency of campaign advertising. Political ads are as manipulative and as effective as they are expensive.
In the 2012 presidential race, Barack Obama’s campaign spent $404 million on television ads, and Mitt Romney’s campaign spent $494 million.In 2008 these numbers weren’t as horrendous, where Obama spent about $240 million and John McCain spent about $126 million.It doesn’t get better in midterm elections, either. In the 2010 midterm elections, over $3 billion is estimated to have been spent on political advertising.Candidates funnel money into ads that are by their nature annoying, repetitive, and short-lived.
Politicians are happy to spend so much because the ads work. While woefully understudied, Rick Perry’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign financed a study on the persuasive value of television advertisements. The study is peer-reviewed and incredibly helpful in understanding the true effects of campaign advertisements. $2 million of Perry’s campaign funds were dispersed across Texan counties experimentally to expose different groups to varied television and radio advertising.The advertisements contained differing content and were played at varying time intervals. Follow-up telephone interviews were conducted for one week following the exposure period, with approximately 1,000 interviews a day.
The study found that the effects of political advertising are strong but short-lived. These researchers underscored the finding that advertising effects rapidly decay. In this study, they found that a week of television advertisements increased Perry’s vote share by 4.73 percent, but even just a week of no advertisements decreased that vote share to -.17. They devised two main theories to explain the effects of campaign ads, the first being that Individuals do not commit the details of political ads to heart. Rather, they create new opinions based on the information presented, but then discard that the information and keep the opinion.
Additionally, they gave the theory that campaign ads make voters invoke different evaluative criteria when they size up candidates. By presenting an issue area as vitally important, voters then believe it is. As campaign ads stress the policy areas their own candidate is strongest in, these ads have the capability to manipulate the minds of voters in their campaign’s favor. These scholars suggest, based on this study, a combination of the two theories: that individuals only commit to memory details about an advertisement when the ad does change the way they evaluate a candidate.
The people creating these ads know how to toy with the minds of voters. No campaign has admitted to using subliminal messaging in their campaign advertisements, but in 2000 one of George W. Bush’s ads got uncomfortably close to that line. One of his ads flashed “RATS” for a fraction of a second, and the man who created the ad stated that he added the word intentionally to draw the viewer to the word “bureaucrats.” Many advertisements also very intentionally try to make the viewer disgusted and afraid. Studies by David Pizarro at Cornell have shown that individuals become more sympathetic to conservative standpoints if they are by a bottle of hand sanitizer, are in a smelly room, or are thinking of children. Fear of the germ-ridden world or the harm that could come to children inclines people to side with the stereotypically “strong” party. In short, Republicans fare better when voters are afraid of the world, and Democrats fare better when people have the ability and desire to focus on domestic issues.
Political advertisements remain the strongest tool of a campaign. Every second can be analyzed and manipulated to sway the minds of voters. If a campaign ad is radical or particularly attention-grabbing, news programs will show the advertisement again without costing the candidate anything. Voters are, however, unlikely to realize just how swayed they are by political advertising. John Zaller’s work The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion asserts that voters hear sound bites, quips, and short political advertisements that easily change their attitudes. Because they do not have a solid foundation of political thought, new information sways their fragile opinions.
Campaign ads, because of their strong but short-lived effectiveness, consume a huge amount of campaign money. They are, by their nature, the most expensive component of a campaign. Campaigns with the most money are able to put more ads on the air and sway more voters their way. It’s because of this that the recent Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, is so jarring. While wealthy Americans have had caps on the amount of money they can contribute to political campaigns in the past, those limitations were lifted with this decision. Wealthy ideologues will be able to give much more to candidates, so candidates with political stances that do not help the majority will have a better shot at winning. The wealthiest Americans can sway elections, and the will of the people is degraded. The uninformed masses will be ever more swayed by political ads, and the candidates who have the backing of the nation’s wealthiest will have even more power to persuade the masses. Politicians like Warren and Brown give us hope that some politicians want to campaign based on their policies rather than their wallets, but it’s more likely than not that truces like theirs won’t become widespread. New regulations would have to be enacted to counteract previous court decisions about campaign financing, instating limitations on the amount wealthy individuals and major corporations could give to super PACs and the candidates themselves. These changes would reverse the McCutcheon and Citizens United decisions, which is highly unlikely. Instead, we’re likely to be bombarded by more and more political ads.