In (weak) defense of political ads

Because I have ranted recently against the bane of 30-second political ads, I feel obliged to pass along this New York Times piece by UCLA Political Scientist Lynn Vavreck, titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Campaign Ads.” 

According to research in which Vavreck participated after the 2006 midterms, people who lived in districts in which there had been more advertising were more likely to be able to recognize the candidates when shown pictures of their faces. This was especially true of recognition of the faces of the challengers who, in general, are less-famous than the incumbents.

This doesn’t much surprise me, but neither does it make me want to stop worrying and love campaign ads. There are relatively few ways for the face of a non-incumbent candidate to get known, and, especially for citizens who don’t pay much attention to politics in general, seeing their faces on oft-repeated TV commercials — whether the ads were for or against their faces — would be one of the likeliest to stick.

I likewise wouldn’t be surprised if, after being shown pictures of, let’s say Al Franken and Mike McFadden and asked “which of these guys voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time” and “which of these guys coached his kids’ football teams,” more Minnesotans could answer “correctly” thanks to TV ads.

I’m just not sure how much of a triumph for democracy this represents.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/28/2014 - 01:33 pm.

    Recognizing their faces probably

    isn’t a good thing, given what we know about the effect of appearance.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/28/2014 - 01:54 pm.

    Good point

    Unless/until we reach the point where election ballots feature both names *and* photos of candidates, it’s not face-recognition that’s usually required at the ballot box. It’s name recognition that candidates and campaigns typically strive for.

    “…I’m just not sure how much of a triumph for democracy this [recognition of faces] represents.”

    Little or none, would be my guess…

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/28/2014 - 06:41 pm.

    The more interesting question

    is whether the volume of political advertising is correlated with the understanding of the candidates’ political positions and their relationship to reality.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/28/2014 - 08:53 pm.

    Lawn signs and phone calls

    I’d argue that lawn signs convey more information about candidates than TV and radio campaign ads. Lawn signs tell you who is running and for what office. If you know your neighbor who has the lawn sign and you know something about that neighbor, you might have an idea how that candidate leans and whether you might also want to lean that way or not.

    Phone calls used to be good way of getting the vote out. A few days ago, I had a phone call from the wife of the person running for mayor in my town. I’ll probably vote for that person because they asked for my vote. Having done a fair amount of phone work in the past few years, phone calls has to have become a very ineffective way to reach voters. In my experience, most people don’t answer their phones any more just by using caller ID or letting the call go to voice mail.

    Campaign ads and elections have become another barometer of the alienating and alienated society we now live in.

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 10/31/2014 - 06:57 am.

      You make an engaging assertion about lawn signs

      Ducking political calls says that telephone polls are more suspect than they used to be.

      I have noticed a dearth, a lack of lawn signs this year.
      Some neighborhoods are strewn with them – by & large I’d say they were targeted differently & more carefully this cycle.

      The signs which do exist, trend away from identifying party affiliations.
      Which says neither party is a strong selling point anymore. Let’s hope ideas still ARE.

      Its become bad form to talk politics in the workplace the past decade or so.
      I’d offer that it is becoming bad form in neighborhoods too: the Anne Frank in the attic.

      There are a lot of Napoleons in their ManCaves.
      We wouldn’t want anyone to burst our bubbles.

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