By: Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer
Lately, we have been inundated with political ads. ‘Tis the political season, after all. Most of us don’t even live in states that have a competitive “national” race, where the ad spending and frequency get really intense. We all have same reaction from months of it – emotional exhaustion. Can’t we just make it all stop so we can go back to normal?
Does all of this political advertising really work, anyway? Until recently, no one had studied that question in a formal manner. However, a recent new academic study did just that and came up with some surprising answers. The short answer is, yes, political ads do work in shaping voting behavior, but just a little bit. That’s important not just for the candidates but for marketers everywhere.
Three professors from George Washington University, Vanderbilt University (Anchor Down!), and UCLA reviewed every campaign for the presidency, Congress, and major state elections between 2000 and 2016. They found the campaigns that spent the most money on advertising did better in a given metro area opposed to similar candidates who’s spending was lower. The model that arose from their research projects that Joe Biden’s advertising advantage is worth between .2 and .6 percentage point in vote totals. The effect on voting totals was even greater in “down-ballot” races, where the candidates tended to be less well-known.
At first, you may not think that a half percentage point bump is worth spending close to a billion dollars. But it’s important to remember that President Trump won Michigan in 2016 by .3 percentage points. Those small margins can decide a close election. The lessons for marketers are very important.
First and most simply – advertising works, even for things like politics. This is a very well-established by repeated research, but it’s worth saying one more time. The more we are exposed to a message, candidate, or product, the more that we grow to like it. In psychology, it’s referred to as the exposure effect. It’s one of the reasons that we love the way our mothers make our favorite dish. We’ve been exposed to it more frequently.
Second, as seen in the down ballot races, awareness is a strong driver of preference, especially in low-awareness categories. The advertising for down ballot races generated awareness for candidates that were probably mostly unknown outside of election season. Merely having heard their name repeatedly drove preference. That means if we are shopping for something that we don’t know much about, we are drawn heavily to the “brands” that we have heard of. Much of the shopping that consumers do is for products or services where they limited knowledge. Generating name awareness BEFORE consumers are shopping is a reliable way to win at the point of purchase.
Lastly, like politics, marketing is a competitive sport – other marketers are trying to get consumers to buy from them instead of you, so it’s not just enough to advertise. Most of the candidates in the study had someone running against them, also advertising their own candidacy. Given the binary nature of an election, it provides a unique prism to see the effect of that advertising. It reinforces other research that shows in order to gain an advantage, marketers need two things – a larger share of voice and better creative messaging (the political ads evidently didn’t get that far in their research).
The share of voice principle stands out in this study – to do better than your competitor, you need to market more than that competitor. It’s also important to note that share of voice isn’t just about spending money, but about how frequently people are hearing your message. Thus, public relations and social media coverage counts as well, and can even offset advertising spending. We saw this in 2016, where President Trump was badly outspent in advertising dollars, but was able to more than offset this through his ability to dominate press coverage. As the political season comes to its merciful end in a couple of weeks, at least we will know that the barrage of ads we have been exposed to have some effect on the outcome. As a marketer, it’s reassuring. As a consumer of ads, well, I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving.