Does advertising even work?

(This is the third, much delayed, and last post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

Let’s get to what really matters: does political advertising work? And what can it teach us when it comes to brands?

Last things first: it can teach us a lot. Firstly, it’s a stress test: political campaigns are the most sophisticated form of persuasive communication. Secondly, we have more and better data: very few marketing organizations put as much effort and resources into research as campaigns do; those who do are not as consistent, regularly varying methodology, scope and object of the research depending on quarterly marketing plans; finally, the very few companies with a consistent record of research that allows for historical comparison tend to keep their results confidential. (Data from political campaigns is widely available because it comes partly from academic institutions and partly from organizations that tend to dismantle after one or few political cycles.)

So, back to the original question: does political advertising even work? Or are the billion+ dollars that are going to be spent in a presidential year just a huge waste to keep the networks happy and the pundits employed?


John Sides at George Washington University has summed up decades of scientific research to show what advertising has been proven to do and what it has not, in 6 points. (I dream of the day when Millward Brown will produce something this insightful, concise and solid). Here is what he found out, followed by my considerations on what it means for brands.

1. Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar

Not so surprisingly, we are more influenced by ads when we haven’t had a chance to formulate our own opinion on candidates. As time goes by, one of our many cognitive biases makes us more receptive to information that reinforces our opinion and less to that which would challenge it.

2. Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent

Again, not such an original finding, but one we should take into account more: no matter how much we like the idea of underdogs defeating established leaders with smart tactics, share of voice still carries a huge weight.

3. Campaign ads can matter, but not for long

Folks in Madison Avenue and DC can recall every detail of an advertising campaign for years, but the truth is that regular people are exposed to an amazing amount of information every day, and even the stickiest ad won’t have a long-lasting effect. According to Sides’s study, “the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week”.

4. Negative ads work, except when they don’t

While negative ads are more easily recalled and can generate intense debate, there is no conclusive evidence that they can win votes.

5. Campaign ads don’t really affect turnout

This is easy to understand once we take a healthy distance from the Madison Avenue mindset: something you see on tv today, no matter how brilliant, is unlikely to make you get up and go to a polling station a few days or weeks from now. Direct communication on election day, whether door-to-door or over the phone, is much more effective, and exponentially more so when coming from sone you have a personal relationship with.

6. There is no secret sauce. Really.

Are successful ads about policy or a candidate’s biography? Should they raise fear or hope? Are stats and numbers interesting or boring? Like with so many other things in life, it depends. If there was a silver bullet, both candidates would be firing it at each other, and that would most likely neutralize its effect. But the truth is, there is no shortcut. It’s all about doing the right ad for the right objective at the right time, as defined by our talent and experience, and then hope that it works.


So what about brands?

There are clearly some major differences, the most significant being that brands don’t have the same amount of public exposure as political candidates: you don’t see Nike v Adidas televised debates in college campuses (no matter how fun that’d be…), and there is no army of reporters documenting their every move. Because of this, advertising is comparatively more important in shaping their image. (Although a case could be made for those brands that are often at the center of news stories, such as banks.)

However, John Side’s research does raise some questions worth thinking about:

1. If ads are more effective when brands are mostly unknown, should we really buy into the idea of lightning many fires and only investing in those that gain traction, or will it be too late by then to make the brand what we want it to be?

2.  If the effects of advertising disappears after a week, should we only produce ads that are engineered to deliver a tangible call-to-action to take the relationship further (eg. buy a product, enter into a loyalty program, download a widget) as opposed to mere brand-building?

3. Should we stop pretending that advertising alone can drive people to retail, and start taking the “lead a horse to water” metaphor more literally?

4. Finally, as none of this is particularly controversial, why are we not doing it?

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One thought on “Does advertising even work?

  1. rgw1 says:

    Reblogged this on RG_W and commented:

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