Political ads work, but the effects are small

Political ads aim to persuade. These campaigners strive to target an audience to vote for their candidate, ultimately paying the price. Photo courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, wsj.com/articles.

Ever wonder the effectiveness of political advertisements during election seasons? A study suggests the effect is small. 

Political ads aim to persuade. These campaigners strive to target an audience to vote for their candidate, ultimately paying the price. But political scientists are skeptical about whether the messages work or not. 

“There’s very little evidence that ads make much of a difference in a presidential campaign,” said Diana Mutz, a political scientist professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article from NPR.org. “It’s [a] shockingly small bang for the buck when it comes down to it.”

More than $1 billion was spent on TV ads for the presidential election this year in just 13 states, according to an NPR analysis of ad spending data. 

There is no doubt these advertisements have effects. In a study published Sept. 2 in the Science Advances journal, author Alexander Coppock measured the persuasive messages in political advertisements. The study looked at ads throughout the 2016 presidential election campaign concluding that it showed insignificant persuasive effects from person to person. 


“Democratic subjects respond more strongly to pro-Democratic advertisements than to pro-Republican advertisements,” said coauthor Coppock, assistant professor of political science at Yale University. However, upon observing the messages of both pro-Democratic and pro-Republican advertisements, both have the same small effects. 

However, this does mean that campaign advertisements lead to worthless content. Ads still might play a large role in election outcomes, said Coppock. 

“In a close election, these small effects could be the difference between winning and losing, ” Coppock said. 

In a national sample of 34,000 people, 49 advertisements were tested from the 2016 election in 59 randomized experiments. High-profile ads attacking both the Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton from 2016 were tested. Promotional ads from each candidate were also tested. 

Advertisements are targeted to specific audiences. These ads should be tailored to specific markets on the outcome of persuasion. 

“The evidence from our study shows that the effectiveness of advertisements does not vary greatly from person to person or from advertisement to advertisement,” Coppock said.  

Political ads remain a small effective piece of the puzzle surrounding the campaign of a candidate during election season. The hefty price of ads poured over into these campaigns never guarantees lasting effects on the individual. Only the respective party’s idea of their candidate.


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