Are Campaign Ads Failing Because No One is Watching TV?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Earlier this week, our video team and I put together a segment exploring how Donald Trump has survived—nay, thrived—despite the thousands of negative political ads aired against him:

One reader offers a simple explanation:

You left out the most obvious reason campaign ads aren’t as effective: No one sees them anymore, because no one watches live TV anymore.

This reader had a similar line of thought:

Campaign ads don’t work because too many people, like me, are accessing media not through television or newspapers. Plus our “news” sources are fragmented and in silos that suit our beliefs. So ads with mindless repetitions are just noise, easily filtered out.

I’m not convinced on the first point. While DVRs like Tivo and services like Netflix have empowered people to skip commercials or drop TV altogether, adults still spend about four-and-a-half hours a day watching live television, according to Nielson. Viewership has dropped among younger people, but people over 65 still watch more than 50 hours a week, and they’re more likely to actually vote.

I’m not sure about the silo argument, either—at least while we’re still in the primaries. It’s undeniably true that American media consumption has become increasingly partisan, but I don't know how watching Fox News regularly would make a Republican voter less likely to pay attention to an ad supporting Marco Rubio or bashing Ted Cruz. This could change in the general election, with Democratic ads pitted against Republicans—which is why commercials often target undecided independents.

Another explanation multiple readers offered? Campaign ads have never been all that effective, “despite all the hoopla about Super PACS and Citizens United.” Scholarship appears split on whether campaign commercials (particularly negative ones) raise turnout, lower it, or do nothing at all. And while the 2016 cycle has seen good turnout (though not yet at 2008 levels for Democrats), it’s easier to attribute that to the contentious contest and oversized personalities involved.