Why Ads Work

Friday, September 19, 2008 at 6:41 pm
Stills from Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 campaign ad, "Peace, Little Girl" (Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum)

Stills from Lyndon B. Johnson Museum and Library

In the annals of campaign advertising, it stands as a legend: A young girl plucking flower petals, counting each as it falls, is interrupted by a sinister voice counting down 10 … nine … eight … until a nuclear blast fills the screen, a fire-ball replacing the black terror in her eyes.

In the background, we hear the stern voice of President Lyndon B. Johnson: “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark, we must either love each other, or we must die.”

The year was 1964, and the ad, which aired only once, shifted the tone of Johnson’s successful bid against the sharply anti-communist Sen. Barry M. Goldwater. More than that, however, it ushered in a new age of political propaganda, highlighting the emotional power of advertising — particularly television advertising — to sway voters and decide races.

Political candidates have never looked back.

Indeed, it’s a sad truth of modern politics that campaign cash (ie, media funding) is prerequisite to any successful bid for higher public office — increasingly so. This year’s presidential contest will be the most expensive in history. The two leading presidential contenders have already spent roughly a quarter-billion dollars on advertising. If there’s one universal rule in politics, it’s that those who have trouble fund-raising need not apply.

“American politics,” said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, “has long ago shifted from an enterprise based on mass organization, to an enterprise based on TV and radio propaganda. It’s no longer labor intensive. Now it’s capital intensive.”

The reason is clear: ads work. And yet — considering all the hours of media attention, the public interviews, the endless campaigning, the viral Internet videos, the stump-speeches, the national conventions, the soon-to-be televised debates and the countless water-cooler arguments weighing the virtues and vices of the presidential candidates this very minute — the question remains: what causes voters to respond to short, one-sided bursts of un-nuanced messaging?

Why, that is, do ads work?

Clearly, the question cuts across disciplines, dredging to discover the countless reasons that folks behave the way they do, asking no less than what it is to be human. Faced with the question, Frank Ginsberg, chairman and CEO of Avrett Free Ginsberg, a New York-based advertising agency, said with a sigh, “We don’t have enough time.”

Yet there is a craft — dare we say a science — tested over decades, that allows advertisers to target specific audiences, appeal to their tastes and sensibilities, and predict with some degree of accuracy how they will respond. This is true whether it be a consumer buying a soft drink or a voter choosing a candidate.

A leading factor in this equation rests on emotional appeal. Ads are not just narrations; they attack the senses. In the case of Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” commercial (which never even mentioned Goldwater’s name) the intended response was clearly fear — a tactic repeated in the 1988 Willie Horton ad that helped sink Gov. Michael S. Dukakis’s White House hopes. Television is particularly suited to stimulate such an emotional reaction, combining images with music, text and narration to create an all-encompassing sensory experience.

“Ads are designed to have an emotional appeal that’s often more important than the actual information,” said Paul Freedman, a University of Virginia political scientist specializing in campaign advertising. “If you’re selling a car, you’re selling an image, you’re selling a state of mind. It’s not just a hunk of metal and plastic.”

In this way, Freedman added, candidates can brand themselves in the vaguest terms — an agent of change, for example, or a man of experience. The point being, Freedman said, that brands are “divorced from nuance.”

Campaign ads can also be effective by instilling confidence in voters seeking a reason to support a particular candidate. Marvin Overby, political science professor at the University of Missouri—Columbia, said many political ads fall in this category, aiming not to steal supporters from another candidate, but simply to mobilize those inclined to be their own. “Voters don’t want to feel like they have to flip a coin,” Overby said.

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, echoed that message, saying ads frame issues in ways encouraging voters to feel a certain way about the candidates. “Political spots can’t create impressions that don’t already exist among the electorate,” West wrote in an email, “but they can encourage voters to see the candidates in particular ways. You can win by making people like you or dislike your opponent.”

In a prominent example this year, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican presidential nominee, attacked his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), for his celebrity, equating his superstar status to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

Repetition — the hammering away at an audience with a singular message — is also a powerful method of persuasion best accomplished through ads. In the modern political culture, these messages arrive “not just forcefully, but inescapably,” said Miller of NYU, who’s working on a book about the Marlboro Man, the ultimate in commercial icons. “Ideally,” he added, “you would have the commercial itself become a news story.” As was proven by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, even negative coverage is free advertising.

Finally, political advertisers are successful for the simple reason that many voters, for countless reasons, don’t follow politics very closely. Lynda Lee Kaid, professor of telecommunications at the University of Florida, said television ads allow candidates to lend an education (of sorts) that’s convenient to the viewer, providing “substantial amounts of information without great effort by the voter.”

Freedman, of UVA, agreed. “For many, many, many Americans, the campaign is coming to them only through these ads,” Freedman said. “They reach people who otherwise don’t have the time or the inclination to be plugged in to whatever’s going on with a political campaign.”

The candidates certainly know it. Through the end of July, Obama’s campaign had spent more than $152 million on advertising and related expenses, like media consultants, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog. McCain’s campaign, meanwhile, had spent nearly $54 million over the same span, CRP says.

And who would question their reasoning? If advertising can make a pair of blue jeans a symbol of social acceptance, turn a sandal into a walk down Hollywood Boulevard and transform a bottle of beer into a sexual fantasy, why would we doubt it couldn’t remake Sarah Palin into Joan of Arc? With the right image-making machine, anything is possible.

As Ginsberg said of his target audiences: “We know them better than they know themselves.”



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