In age of 24/7 cable news coverage and social media, in an age when the public is sick to death of political advertising, in an age of nifty ad-dodging tools like Hulu, YouTube and TiVO, political ads are now increasingly irrelevant. An anachronism.
Right? We’ve been hearing that for years now. For instance, a 2008 column in the Star Tribune by John Rash carried the provocative headline, “Ads’ influence falls away in a ‘message election,’” and carried a number of quotes from influential local and national experts supporting the headline’s assertion.
It’s not the first time you’ve heard the claim, and it’s not the last time you’ll hear it. But reports of the demise of the political ad have been greatly exaggerated.
Consider, for instance, Newt Gingrich’s freefall in Iowa.
Both Iowans and non-Iowans have been watching the same presidential debate coverage of Newt. Both Iowans and non-Iowans have been watching the same national news coverage of Newt. Both Iowans and non-Iowans have been listening to Limbaugh, Hannity and other nationally syndicated talk radio hosts opining about Newt and his rivals.
But a huge difference for Newt in Iowa versus the rest of the country is the anti-Newt advertising pouring into Iowa. Newt reportedly is getting hammered by negative direct mail ads, radio ads, TV ads, outdoor ads, and online ads. Iowans are seeing the ads repeatedly, but Americans as a whole are not.
It therefore is probably not a coincidence that Newt is polling at about 27.4% nationally, but half that (13.7%) in Iowa. Nationally, he is still in first place, but in Iowa he has fallen to fourth place. His trend line isn’t great in either Iowa or the nation as a whole, but in Iowa Gingrich has fallen faster and further.
Obviously, other factors are also at play. For instance, Newt reportedly has comparatively little field staff in Iowa. (However, you might expect this disadvantage to manifest itself more on tomorrow’s caucus attendance than on pre-caucus polls.) It also could just be that Newt from afar sells better than Newt up close. (However, we didn’t see that differential appeal just a few weeks ago.)
The barrage of anti-Newt ads are a significant factor. Political ads deliver something crucial that other communications tactics don’t. Repetition. As a rule, the more people hear a claim repeated, the more they are likely to believe it and internalize it, and ads repeat and repeat and repeat.
When you look at the fate of Newt, it’s no mystery why Adweek estimates about $4 billion will be spent on political advertising in 2012. As much as citizens assure us political ads don’t work, and as much as media relations and social media gurus love to declare ads obsolete, political ads are still extremely impactful. Just ask Newt.