Politics Is Marketing, So Don’t Tell Me Political Ads Don’t Work

If there’s one thing many voters of different political stripes agree on, it’s that they don’t like political ads. And ads are more pervasive than ever. That’s why politicians and Super PACs spend much of their time fundraising—they need to pay for the ads.

So count me as incredibly skeptical when I see articles like this one from USA Today, which says that TV ads rarely swing Congressional elections.

In the roughly 250 races where candidates from both parties ran TV ads, the commercials did seem to swing voters towards the politician who ran the most ads, statistically speaking.

Now admittedly, this study says that advertising rarely changes the outcome of elections. But even though Congress has an approval rating somewhere close to chlamydia, most incumbent congresspeople get reelected. I believe extreme district gerrymandering is part of the reason why, but the power of the advertising and messaging machines are a large part as well. And it’s a tool incumbents use to swing elections back to them.

We keep hearing about how we need to “throw the bums out,” but upstart politicians have little means to get their names and ideas out. That’s where TV comes in. Without commercials, they can’t break through. And so the power of incumbency remains. For any incumbent facing a legitimate challenge, they need to advertise. For any challenger who wants to be seriously considered, they need to advertise, too.

The ads will still be nasty as well. I’ve written about why negative ads work. They’ll continue to work, to protect incumbents or knock off extremely vulnerable politicians.

If advertising didn’t have the power to swing elections, politicians would stop making TV ads. You might see a more level playing field, and a greater chance for outsiders to win. That’s not gonna happen anytime soon.

About Dan Goldgeier

Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. Dan is also a columnist for TalentZoo.com and the author of View From The Cheap Seats and Killer Executions and Scrubbed Decks.