, Derry, New Hampshire

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June 14, 2012

Presidential campaign ads are everywhere, but do they work?


Fundraising figures released by Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney last week haven't challenged the most-expensive-election-ever narrative. Romney and his party raised more than $76 million last month, outdrawing Obama and Democrats, who hauled in $60 million. Romney is also getting help from Republican-leaning super PACs that have raised far more than their Democratic-leaning counterparts. (Advertising strategists for Romney and Obama declined to comment for this article).

The notion that all that TV money will buy relatively little is almost as old as TV itself. Dozens of academic examinations since the 1940s have shown that TV ads have limited persuasive effects on voters in general elections, often accounting for no more than a 1 or 2 percent difference, and often considerably less.

What's more, outspending a rival on advertising in a general-election campaign doesn't guarantee anything; John Kerry and his Democratic allies ran almost 200,000 more ads than George W. Bush did in 2004 and lost in a close election. On the other hand, Obama had a narrower advertising advantage over Sen. John McCain in 2008 and won relatively easily.

Political operatives and campaign media advisers don't dispute the general notion of limited impact. But only a few openly question the proliferating ad wars.

"More money is spent on television advertising than any other element of presidential campaigns, and yet it provides the worst return on investment," said Mark McKinnon, the chief media adviser for Bush's presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004 and an early adviser to McCain in 2008. "I think you could take 90 percent of the spending on television ads and flush it and still have the same net impact."

One illuminating illustration came in a study of the 2008 race by researchers at Washington State and Bowdoin College.

The study compared the vote totals of the candidates in counties in "battleground" states with their totals in counties just across the border in safely red or blue states. People in the latter counties saw the same ads as voters in the battleground counties but weren't subjected to other kinds of campaign messages and activities, such as phone calls, mail or visits by home campaign workers.

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