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Don't Waste Money on TV Ads

Don't Waste Money on TV Ads

Here’s an interesting piece of political trivia for you: a single Senate race in New Hampshire (population of around 1.4 million) cost $127 million in 2016. With around 408,000 voters, that means roughly $311 was spent per voter for a single Senate race. And that doesn’t even include the tens of millions of dollars the Clinton and Trump campaigns also tossed into the state, much less so-called “dark money” where we can’t reliably say who spent how much and where.  

If all of that money seems like overkill, it’s because it was. Thanks to Citizens United, anyone and their grandmother can throw down unlimited amounts of money into any race in the country. Just look at this breakdown from the Union Leader of that $127 million and see how much of it came from sources not immediately with either campaign.  

Unless I’m mistaken, the vast majority of those Super PAC dollars are going to television and other kinds of paid media in a fashion relatively uncoordinated with the campaign itself.

Again, this race was decided by less than 1,000 votes, so at first blush, it looks like the money may have been warranted. But I have a hard time believing that that next marginal $10 million spent on television advertising was really worth it.

Look at it this way. If you knew in advance you had to net an additional 1,000 votes to win, and I gave you $10 million to do it, would you spend it on television? Seems like a pretty untargeted way to approach the problem. More importantly, if you had advanced knowledge (say, that every statewide race in New Hampshire is always going to be competitive) you might take that $10 million and invest in trainers, organizers, building out volunteer lists, and in general developing the permanent, local infrastructure to net those additional voters.

My point is this: with the ungodly sums of money being dumped into politics these days, let’s divert more of it the long-term infrastructure that brings in voters long before the next election cycle. You can hire honest-to-goodness people whose job it is to maintain relationships and get people involved in every election.

This isn’t to say that television advertising serves no purpose. It’s just important to remember what television advertising is good at. If you have 0% name recognition, advertising on TV is probably one of easiest ways to get large groups of people to know you exist. And if you have a particularly striking message or unique perspective to give, it can help generate buzz (if supplemented with a good digital strategy).

But beyond a threshold amount, you can have massive diminishing returns. And just as important, the reliance on television advertising pokes holes in the rest of your strategy. After all, spending $10 million on television ads in a swing state feels like a sizeable and worthwhile investment. It’s traceable, there’s almost no overhead, and you get to see the results for yourself. It’s easy to see why so many campaigns and allied Super PACs just write the check and say mission accomplished.

But it’s fake, and people know it’s fake. Even the most authentic TV ad has barely as much influential power as a Facebook post shared by a trusted friend. If you give me $311 to spend per voter in my district, you can bet I’m using most of that money to build out social networks (real and electronic) that get my name and message to the people who actually vote. Sure, I’d do some TV, radio, and print ads to flesh out that message and reach some folks outside of my immediate voter pool, but that would just be a supplement to the rest of the campaign.  

Just think about how many ads you’ve seen that are either a hectoring series of attacks or some straight-to-the-camera shot. I don’t know about you, but I almost always disengage. They’re so painful to watch. Sure, if it’s Barack Obama or it’s an attack that really gets to some fundamental flaw about the person, it’s a little more manageable. But on the whole, it’s just a really nebulous way to get my attention or my vote.

Contrast that to your best friend saying how excited she is to support Martin O’Malley. I may not really understand it at first, but I’m immediately put on notice as to why this person likes the great former Governor of Maryland. I get the hunch that’s how Donald Trump did so well in the early days, even before the media machine took over and starting doing the work for him.

In the end, television advertising has largely become an inefficient crutch for campaigns (actual or Super PAC) that want to dive-bomb into a fight without doing the real and quite difficult work of gaining voters’ trust. That process takes amazing candidates running on platforms of genuine conviction, tailored to his or her future constituents, cultivated long before any ask needs to be made.  

It’s not our fault that Citizens United has given us this world of unlimited corporate money, but it is our fault for trying to play the game in a way that saps us of our ability to make deep, profound connections with voters.

The money has come with a price: it’s given us artifice over a heart. If we have to play this game, let’s at least choose something real and enduring to spend our money on.   

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