The Art and Science of Political Ads

viva obamaThe handsome mariachi singer reminds us that, “it doesn’t matter if we’re from San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Dallas, The Valley, Houston, or El Paso, what matters is that we vote for Obama because his struggle is our struggle.” The Viva Obama ad goes on to show Latino Texans in their homes, at rallies and at their places of work all singing along with the chorus line “Viva Obama.”

The “Viva Obama” ad that aired in the lead up to the 2008 Texas primary is phenomenal and not just because of its chorus line that is near impossible to get out of your head. The ad is so good because it micro-targets down to the sub-sub-group level. The message was directed to a very specific audience, Latino Texans – Tejanos. At the same time, the ad recognized the regional differences among Latino Texans highlighting a nuanced sensitivity, while calling on Tejanos to put aside these differences and come together in support of Barack Obama.

Every election cycle millions of dollars are spent on advertising and in this year’s presidential election the price tag will be well into the billions.  Just in the first couple of weeks of the current presidential primary close to $70 million has been spent on television ads alone. While fortunes are being spent on ads voter participation models have tended to downplay their effectiveness. Political ads are seen as impersonal and void of the personal touch that comes with more direct forms of communication. For example contact through door-to-door canvassing or town halls allows complex information to be conveyed and better tailored to the recipient.

Research has shown that the more direct forms of mobilization do have a greater likelihood of getting people to turn out but they are time- and human capital-intensive. The limitation of this strategy is that it is costly to directly communicate with all potential voters. The strength of indirect mobilization in the form of ads lies more in the quantity rather than quality of the communication. Per capita, advertisements are a cost effective way to reach individuals. But ads have been seen as marginally effective at best and demobilizing at worst when voters become overwhelmed by the number and negativity of ads.

victoria defranceso sotoWhile political ads do not necessarily create the opportunities for citizens to participate or reduce the costs of registering to vote, they can serve the function of reducing information costs by informing citizens about the political stances and capabilities of the candidates running for office. Ads can also increase the salience of the issues at stake and the relevance of participation. Coupled with direct forms of communication and mobilization political advertisements make for a powerful message medium.

In the past decade political ads have become much more personalized. Consumer market research and the growth explosion of media outlets have allowed political ads to convey specific messages to specific groups leading to an approximation of the more direct forms of communication. Political strategists no longer have to rely on ads with only a general message that airs one of the three major networks. Ads can now be targeted to speak to Midwest soccer moms that are tuning in to the Lifetime channel at 10 a.m. on weekdays. The message that this ad will convey will be very different than that targeted toward Latino males ages 18 to 29 watching soccer on Univision on a Sunday afternoon. Ultimately both messages are being conveyed through a screen, but today that message speaks much more directly to the viewer.

Karl Rove is the father of political micro-targeting. He relied on rich individual level data from the consumer marketing world to understand the diverse segments within the population. More importantly, Rove elaborated tailored messages to resonate and mobilize different electorates. Since 2000, micro-targeting has become a campaign staple and has only grown in the level of detail it encompasses.

In the 2012 election cycle we will see ads targeted to left-handed political science majors at Big 12 Schools — OK, maybe not quite that specific, but close. One thing is for sure, micro-targeted political ads will clutter our airwaves and our webpages.  And while we may not be thrilled at the message bombardment, we can at least expect the ads we do consume to have our very particular characteristics in mind. The recent incorporation of consumer market data into the field of political advertising has allowed a tad bit more science to influence the art of political advertising.

Victoria Defrancesco Soto
Dr. VMDS

Published by the LA Progressive on February 27, 2012
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About Victoria DeFrancesco Soto

Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and a Faculty Fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University in 2007 during which time she was a National Science Foundation Fellow. DeFrancesco Soto was recently named one of the top 12 scholars in the country by Diverse magazine.

Victoria’s research analyzes how human thought and emotion shapes political behavior. Her academic work focuses on: campaigns and elections, political marketing, race and ethnic politics, and immigration. Her academic research has been widely published in scholarly journals and edited volumes. In 2008, Dr. DeFrancesco Soto was Northwestern University’s principal investigator for the Big Ten Battleground Poll, a public opinion survey of voters for the 2008 Presidential election. She is currently working on a book manuscript that analyzes the emergence of conservative feminism.

Comments

  1. Rove may have used the microtargetting better than most, but the direction was in play long before the Dubya phenom. One who understood it is Roger Ailes. On the left, we learned to deal with the advantages of Saul Alinsky’s grassroots programs. This, I believe, is more effective–dealing with people on a direct basis, and then supplementing it with targetted marketing. (All of this is possible because of the fragmentation of the media, as seen by the thousands of micro and mini cable networks.)

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