Thought of the Day: Do Ads Matter?

It is perhaps an underappreciated truism among the Washington-based class of political insiders, observers, commentators, strategists, staffers, consultants, researchers, spokespeople, and politicians themselves that not everybody likes politics. In fact, lots of people dislike it.

Every two years, when American TV sets are taken over by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars worth of political advertising, many people, I suspect, greet this development with tired, disgruntled sighs. Negativity abounds, and it is served, in many cases, by oversimplicity: congressional votes on large, complicated bills are cited to prove that candidates support tax increases or federally funded abortions or gigantic deficits. Most people assume, correctly, that things are a trickier than that.

All of this is very unattractive.

So it is perhaps easy to overestimate the effect of TV ads on elections by assuming that dollars injected into a state- or nationwide purchase of TV time will cause direct improvement in the spender's polling numbers. While ads for big campaigns are commonly based on some form of empirical data--either focus groups or polling that shows likely voters leaning one way or an issue or a dimension of an opposing candidate's capabilities in a certain policy genre--none of that helps if the broader, viewing public doesn't actually like the ad, if its aesthetics misfire or if it plays to some inaccurate gauge of audience tolerance for negativity or rhetorical license.

A person's impression of what's happening in an election has less to do with TV money spent on each side and more to do with the nexus of multiple ad campaigns he/she sees, or rather is forced to see, ads aired by more than one entity, including the campaigns themselves, the national party committees, and third-party groups attacking on specific issues.

The inundation of multiple ad campaigns, particularly negative ones, can make voters sick of any major election that's about to happen.

Individual ads do, of course have their consequences, and some have swayed the vote tremendously. Just look at the Swift Boat Veterans, which to this day are largely credited with John Kerry's epic 2004 defeat. When I moved to DC in 2006, in the heat of the midterms, I immediately came to identify Michael Steele, who was running for Senate in Maryland at the time, with his white-background ads in which he holds puppies.

But ads can ruin things for the people who air them. Case in point: when Sen. Elizabeth Dole aired a TV ad in 2008 accusing her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, of taking "Godless money" in her campaign, it was an overreach. The backlash was instant. Hagan aired a series of effective, straight-to-camera ads defending herself as a Christian and condemning Dole for making such an accusation. Hagan now represents North Carolina in Dole's former seat.

Here's a vague, anecdotal sense of how ads work. Take it for what it's worth. It's that once voters generally distrust politicans and political campaigns, at least a little bit, and don't like having to hear about politics while watching TV. If they did, they'd be watching Fox News or MSNBC. So at least part of the message offends just by being there, and another part is probably discounted.

While TV dollars are an easy metric to predict who will win a campaign, it's worth remembering that sometimes they do more harm than good, and sometimes the total spend, on all sides, serves to make voters wish big elections would go away, and soon.

Just a thought.