Published in 2008, a study of the effectiveness of traditional advertising (TV, radio, and print) found it began to lose steam three decades earlier, long before the Internet became viable for the general public.
Using updated research tools, the study reanalyzed scores of studies going back well into the 1960s and found that traditional advertising began to lose steam long before the Internet provided an excuse.
Today, even durable goods such as automobiles and appliances, which were lonely exceptions in the 2008 study, have now shifted more than half of any advertising to digital forms.
But despite the fact that there is now a negative return from traditional advertising, there is one area where it excels: political attack ads.
Having been recognized myself in the early 1980s for advertising innovation and excellence, I can see a few reasons why:
One is that political races are winner-take-all in this country so a candidate only has to influence one or two percent more voters than his or her opponent, as Thom Tillis did over Kay Hagen in the North Carolina race for U.S. Senate.
After $79 million was spent on attack ads by independent groups of anonymous donors on this one race alone, it isn’t likely the narrow outcome in the state where I live was influenced much by the $30+ million spent by the candidates.
Two: no other type of advertising would be considered successful because it alienated 2% fewer people than it influenced. Especially since, persuasion of other products and services must influence public opinion every day, not just every four to six years.
Three: people are more responsive to negative information than positive. This is why frustrated voters often reward the perpetrators of dysfunction while laying blame on those who tried to do something positive.
The question is not how I made it through this election season untainted by this influence but how I came to see three campaign spots, one of them three times.
A total of $16.25 was spent per vote, obviously much higher if taking into account only those who didn’t or couldn’t escape the onslaught.
It is no secret that I have long been one of the now 7 million Americans who stream all video content including television.
During the campaign my radio consumption was only while driving, making coffee or feeding the pups, and it was restricted to satellite radio and NPR.
What may be more telling is how those three ads made it through.
One was a billboard paid for a group on behalf of Kay Hagen, not an attack ad, but the medium a turn off because it is obviously incongruent with her values.
The other two, including one I was forced to wait through two more times was on behalf of Thom Tillis with whom I have worked on state legislation, were only to attack Hagen.
I use the word “forced” because whoever paid for these attack ads on You Tube, where I was gleaning content for two personal history essays, apparently paid Google a little extra to turn off the ability to skip these particular ads after a few seconds.
Sensitive otherwise to annoying users, Google otherwise enables the “skip ad” feature. It is also because advertisers there are not charged for impressions that are skipped.
But the choice of six seconds before skipping an ad may be because Google analysts are familiar with cognitive research finding that 6.5 seconds is all the attention paid to ads, even on-screens such as television.
If the message isn’t clear in that window of time, advertisers are wasting their money.
In fact, studies show that Americans now pay attention to anything an average of just 8 seconds, down by a third since 2000. That may seem like an eternity if riding a bull or bronc but it is less than the attention span of a gold fish.
And the average “memory span” is half as long.
It gets worse. Attention span breaks down into five types and only “continuous attention” makes it to 8 seconds.
Tempted to dismiss averages? Run it through an 80/20 computation and it will be clear that while a tiny fraction will watch an ad over and over, the vast majority of those the ad is intended to read never register it at all.
Traditional adverting is further complicated now not only because consumers, bombarded with an average of 10,000 a day have learned to tune them out, but because the window of attention when given is incredibly brief.
Political attack ads work because the advertisers really don’t have to worry about turning off half of those who watch them while reinforcing previously held misinformation in the other half.
All they need to do in North Carolina is reach enough Independent (unaffiliated voters) in certain counties to generate an extremely narrow win and they pray the vast numbers it annoyed have short memories.
Sound like a good strategy for marketing any other product? Nope, it would be suicide by commercial.
Skip alert – readers who don’t know me will not grasp the irony in what I write next.
Nearly all of my adult life, I’ve been encouraged to run for office, something I’ve never been inclined to do. This is because I have fared well in surveys of residents about job performance.
So to cut off any possibility of retreat on that stance, as a fun exercise, I have noted below how a hypothetical opponents regardless of leanings could trash me with attack ads:
- he’s an independent, therefore wishy-washy and indecisive.
- he’s too chummy with developers and business types
- he’s too chummy with neighborhood leaders and other guardians of sense of place
- he impatient with meetings and is too introverted
- he is too logical, cold and relies too much on data
- he’s been married too many times
- he doesn’t attend church, at least in buildings
- he’s uncompromising ( won’t go along just to get along)
- he rides a Harley so he must have gang ties
- he’s one of those environmentalists, a tree-hugger
- he drives a Jeep so he obviously doesn’t care about the planet
- he has an English Bulldog so he must not like kitties
- he’s too Durham oriented and parochial
- he believes in social justice so must be lenient on criminals and welfare cheats
- he doesn’t let special interests bend his ear
- he’s not a team player
- he’s a northerner (or a westerner) when it comes to old Dixie
- he volunteers for tax increases
- he’s against tax breaks and loopholes
- he’s too intense
Hell, I probably wouldn’t vote for me either. But my reasons for not being interested in elected office have nothing to do with preserving my reputation.
There are just good people far better suited.