Ads, Public Opinion, Campaign Media, Elections

How large and long-lasting are the persuasive effects of televised campaign ads?

Last updated: July 16, 2012

Rick Perry (Wikimedia)
Rick Perry (Wikimedia)

The volume of research on campaign-related advertising is substantial, if inconclusive. Though scholars’ findings mostly support the idea that such messages can have significant effects on voters, there are nuances and caveats complicating any general theory. Research has found that ads targeting groups don’t always work as intended; that negative ads don’t merely turn off voters; and that the content of political commercials is always a key variable. At a fundamental level, communications scholars have been doing experimental research to examine the timing of political messages and their duration. In any case, nearly every experiment is open to charges that it does not fully replicate real-world conditions.

A 2011 study published in the American Political Science Review, “How Large and Long-Lasting Are the Persuasive Effects of Televised Campaign Ads? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment,” makes a novel contribution to the research literature by studying the phenomenon from inside an ongoing Texas gubernatorial campaign (incumbent Rick Perry in 2006.) The researchers, from Yale, the University of Maryland and the University of Texas at Austin, persuaded campaign operatives to allow $2 million in campaign advertising to be spent in ways that ensured randomness in the volume, timing and location of radio and television commercials in certain markets. The study also involved surveying voters in these ad markets and assessing how their views persisted over time.

The study’s findings include:

  • “The maximum dosage of television advertising apparently boosted [the candidate’s] relative standing by approximately six percentage points. Advertising thus appears to have the capacity to induce a substantial shift in vote preferences. The variance in radio advertising volume is much smaller, and the standard errors are therefore larger.”
  • “TV ads exert a strong and significant effect in the current week, smaller and statistically equivocal effects a week later, and no effects thereafter…. Overall, the analysis of dynamics suggests that the effects of TV, although powerful, were short-lived. Not only did they dissipate before Election Day in November, they vanished before the March primary.”
  • The study does not support a prominent theory about advertising effects and voter learning; the findings contradict the notion that, though viewers may forget the particulars of a message, some effects may endure and viewers may nevertheless learn and absorb new attitudes at a deeper level.
  • In contrast, the results appear to show that the principal way ads affect voters is by “priming” them and temporarily shifting the evaluative criteria by which they judge candidates: “The precise way in which priming occurs is subject to alternative but complementary explanations. One possibility is that the ads made people more likely to place certain considerations in working memory. Another is that the ads increased the weight that people accorded these considerations when evaluating the candidates. Whether these ads jogged memory or focused attention or both, they do not appear to have propagated enduring beliefs.”

“This experiment is among the first in any discipline to estimate the effects of a large-scale media campaign using random assignment,” the researchers note. “At a minimum, this study must be replicated in other political contexts in order to answer basic questions, such as how much the effectiveness of advertising depends on the tone and content of the ads, proximity to Election Day and the competitiveness of the race.”

Tags: campaign ads, campaigns and media, elections


Writer: | July 16, 2012

Citation: Gerber, Alan; Gimpel, James G.; et al. “How Large and Long-Lasting Are the Persuasive Effects of Televised Campaign Ads? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment,” American Political Science Review, February 2011, Vol. 105, No. 01, 135-150. doi: 10.1017/S000305541000047X.

Media analysis

Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "No Apologies: Obama Campaign Continues Attacks on Romney."

  1. What key insights from the study are relevant to the campaign dynamics detailed in this news article? What key insights should reporters be aware of as they cover campaign issues?

Study analysis

Read the full study titled “How Large and Long-Lasting Are the Persuasive Effects of Televised Campaign Ads? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment”

  1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
  2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
  3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
  4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
  5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

  1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
  4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
  5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
  6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

Class discussion questions

  1. What is the study’s most important finding?
  2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
  3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
  4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
  5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
  6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

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