Ask Newt If Ads Matter

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.

– Loveland

14 thoughts on “Ask Newt If Ads Matter

  1. PM says:

    Here is Joe Klein’s take on this matter–he thinks that the negative ads are particularly effective, because the candidates do not have to take responsibility for them–no one in Iowa knows that it is Mitt Romney’s friends PAC that is spending millions to trash Newt.

    Welcome to the re-birth of the attack ad. Just wait until November, when we will all be inundated with this crap. How do you feel about campaign finance reform now? (I’ll ask again after the election).

  2. john sherman says:

    I’m considering selling my t.v.’s and giving the money to NPR. The campaign is going to be horrible. Ever since the Supremes discovered in Buckley that money was speech and in Citizens United that corporations were people with first amendment rights, we’re poised to turn a terrible situation worse. A couple of cycles ago a group of unscrupulous bastards with tons of money were able to attack the courage of an actual war hero; God knows what they’ll do now. We have a raging epidemic of Obama Derangement Syndrome, looser rules, not much transparency nor accountability, and tons of money in the hands of people with no scruples.

    The only good news for the Democrats is that they won’t have to create attack ads; they can just recycle the ones the Republicans are using on each other.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      In one of my most detested posts (it’s a crowded field) I opined three years ago about Why I Love Political Ads. But the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that came down in the meantime has certainly made them harder to love. The lack of donor disclosure and limits is a huge problem.

      Ads rebutting the shadowy ads should start using the lack of disclosure as part of the response. Example: “Given the lies in their ads, it’s no wonder that the corporations behind the ad refuse to disclose their identities, and it’s no wonder Incumbent X rejects reforms to make the funders identities public.” It’s not a solution, but given the approval ratings for CEOS is only at 14%, I’m surprised it’s not happening.

      1. john sherman says:

        The NYTimes has a story on Stephen Colbert’s super-pac which has the effect being a non-funny account of what Citizens United means in the real world. I’d sure like to hear Scalia explain how that is what the founders intended.

    1. john sherman says:

      I think I prefer the good old days when candidates bought drinks for the electorate; $14 million or so would reduce the entire Republican population of Iowa to puking hulks lying in the gutter.

      1. PM says:

        Great–just what we need is more brain dead voters.

        Think of it as an economic stimulus package, however, and it isn’t all that bad.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      My thesis about attack ads sinking Newt in Iowa held up. My post wasn’t about Santorum, it was about Newt. Reason: My understanding is that most of the negative ads in Iowa were aimed at Newt, not Santorum.

      Perry did one anti-Santorum ad, but it was late in the game. Joe Garofoli wonders the same thing I do:

      Some political analysts wonder whether late-surging former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished just eight votes behind Romney in Iowa, would have had a chance if a super PAC had trained its sights on him earlier.

      Santorum will start seeing more of the Super PAC attack ads coming his way now. We’ll see how that goes for him.

  3. PM says:

    Santorum did iowa the old school way–the same way that Jimmy carter won in 1976–he moved there. Romney spent relatively little time in the state, yet he bombarded it with advertising. And they both got the same results.

  4. PM says:

    Ahhh, the old tit for tat. Sounds as if Newt has found some people to help him do unto Romney……

    Is this an example of the supporters of Citizens United reaping what they have sown? Seriously, are we going to allow any single billionaire the opportunity (for a mere several millions) to scuttle the chances of any potential presidential candidate they don’t like?

    While i really don’t like this, I am kind of enjoying the irony of it all.

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