‘We found that political ads have consistently small persuasive effects across a range of characteristics. Positive ads work no better than attack ads.’
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — If you live in the United States, you’ll see them every four years. If you’re in a “swing state,” you might see them every four minutes. Election season means one thing in America, lots and lots of political ads. The question is, are they really changing anyone’s vote? A new study finds political ads are virtually useless when it comes to making a candidate more likeable to the voting public.
The report, co-authored by Yale political scientist Alexander Coppock, reveals these pricey television commercials generally fail to persuade voters, regardless of content, context, or target audience. Researchers add this ineffectiveness crosses party lines, pulling in few votes for both Republicans and Democrats. Election season ads even show little ability to move the needle in battleground states, who typically have more undecided Americans.
“There’s an idea that a really good ad, or one delivered in just the right context to a targeted audience, can influence voters, but we found that political ads have consistently small persuasive effects across a range of characteristics,” Coppock says in a university release. “Positive ads work no better than attack ads. Republicans, Democrats, and independents respond to ads similarly. Ads aired in battleground states aren’t substantially more effective than those broadcast in non-swing states.”
A lot of money wasted in 2016
The study reviewed the persuasive power of 49 high-profile advertisements run during the 2016 presidential campaign season. For 29 weeks, researchers had 34,000 people view these ads along with “placebo” advertisements, such as a car insurance commercial.
These major party ads included both attacking and promoting commercials from then-Republican candidate Donald Trump, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders. The study then surveyed how several factors impacted the ad’s effectiveness. Those measures included who the candidate was, the party, the commercial’s sponsor, the tone, and the bias of the viewer.
For the millions spent on political messaging, the results show a candidate’s favorability moved only 0.05 of a point on a five-point rating scale based on a commercial. When it comes to actually voting for that person, candidates picked up just 0.007 of a percentage point. Study authors say this is a small and statistically insignificant move in the polls.
Getting your name out there
Coppock and his co-authors find that there’s one thing election ads can do to benefit a politician — promote the brand.
“TV ads help candidates increase their name recognition among the public, which is extremely important,” Coppock explains. “Moreover, the effects we demonstrated were small but detectable and could make the difference between winning and losing a close election.”
Researchers conclude that campaigns should be careful when thinking about making a commercial specifically for one group. The study finds there is very little difference from person to person when it comes to watching ads.
The study appears in the journal Science Advances.