Why Ads Work

By
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.”

Comments

18 Comments

Rashida
Comment posted September 21, 2008 @ 4:06 am

I always enjoy the John McCain 2-minutes
of hate! filthyrichmond.blogspot.com


Rashida
Comment posted September 21, 2008 @ 11:06 am

I always enjoy the John McCain 2-minutes
of hate! filthyrichmond.blogspot.com


Long Island Advertising Agency
Comment posted August 7, 2010 @ 9:27 am

nicely done!


Coach Handbags Outlet
Comment posted June 8, 2011 @ 3:43 am

A brand new light weight receptacle which defines infrequent elegance. Perfect for Work or Play!We can offer you a Coach Crossbody Bagscollection of high quality and hottest Coach Handbags,at the best prices you will ever find.


Backyard Water Features
Trackback posted August 22, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

outdoor wall fountain…

[...]the time to read or visit the content or sites we have linked to below the[...]…


facebook123
Trackback posted August 25, 2011 @ 3:28 am

Related……

[...]just beneath, are numerous totally not related sites to ours, however, they are surely worth going over[...]……


fur leather steering
Trackback posted August 25, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

heys usa sidewinder…

[...]while the sites we link to below are completely unrelated to ours, we think they are worth a read, so have a look[...]…


Red Bottom Shoes
Trackback posted August 29, 2011 @ 11:25 am

Discount Kasper Suits…

[...]the following are a couple of listings to websites we connect to for the fact we believe there’re worth visiting[...]…


Bill Gates Scholarship
Trackback posted August 31, 2011 @ 6:03 am

Miss America 2011…

[...]the following are a handful of web page links to online sites that we connect to seeing as we think they are seriously worth visiting[...]…


Quickest Way to Lose Weight
Trackback posted August 31, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

Icann…

[...]in the following are several links to internet sites I always link to since we feel these are worthy of visiting[...]…


Solar Panels
Trackback posted September 1, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

Thanks…

Cool site thanks for sharing this info with us…


Taylor Lautner Workout Routine And Diet Plan
Trackback posted September 1, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

Taylor Lautner Workout…

[...Also you might wanna' check out this blog I found here...]…


business lists
Trackback posted September 2, 2011 @ 4:12 am

business to business sales…

[...]while the sites we link to below are completely unrelated to ours, we think they are worth a read, so have a look[...]…


Car Insurance Quotes Online
Trackback posted September 4, 2011 @ 4:41 am

Car Insurance Quotes…

[...]the time to read or visit the content or sites we have linked to below the[...]…


ecommerce solutions
Trackback posted September 4, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

E-commerce web design…

[...]while the sites we link to below are completely unrelated to ours, we think they are worth a read, so have a look at some below[...]…


רכבים יד ראשונה
Comment posted September 6, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

היי רציתי להמליץ לכם על אתר בתחום קניית רכב, סוזוקי אלטו ורכבים למכירהמכיוון שמכירת רכב היא לא פעולה פשוטה וצריך לבצע אותה על הדרך הטובה והמשתלמת ביותר, וכדאי להעזר בחברה מקצועית בעבור זה.


miss america 2012
Trackback posted September 7, 2011 @ 12:50 am

Icann…

[...]listed here are several listings to web sites we link to seeing that we believe they are worth visiting[...]…


Head and facial sweating be gone review
Trackback posted September 7, 2011 @ 7:21 am

Improve your sweat reduction…

[...]I really did enjoy reading these blogs and I am sure you will to[...]…


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.