Regional experts weigh in on the history of political ads and their effectiveness on voters

Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 10:32 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 29, 2022 at 10:35 PM CDT
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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - With election day 41 days away, voters may have seen an increase in political ads on their TV screens.

Before they started flooding screens with commercials, politicians started with the morning paper.

According to Keith Boeckelman, a political science professor at Western Illinois University, those ads have changed since they jumped to the airwaves.

“They had kind of a fairly positive but not very specific message,” Boeckelman said. “Then I think when you get to TV, you see candidates starting to play on emotion, more, and particularly negative emotions.”

It wasn’t until 1960 with the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates that politicians started to lean toward the TV screen.

According to Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, after this point, campaigns started to re-think what it meant to be a candidate.

“That convinced a lot of people that advertising on television maybe was the way to go not unlike advertising for any other kind of product,” Hagle said. “You think about a candidate as a product, and then that’s how you sort of think about how do you package an advertisement?”

In the 62 years since, with early voting becoming more prevalent, election cycles have started earlier. Boeckelman said in turn campaigns no longer use labor day as a benchmark to ramp up their ads.

“You may want to run them, a little earlier, because with early voting, if somebody’s already voted, it doesn’t matter,” Boeckelman said. “Your ad [is] clearly not going to persuade them, well it may persuade them, but it’s not going to change their vote.”

Both professors do believe these kinds of ads can sway voters. Hagle said ads may be more effective depending on geography.

“If nothing else, it gets a particular candidate’s name out there. And especially if you’ve got maybe a bigger state,” Hagle said. “You may have to rely on different types of advertising to actually reach a wider audience.”

Meanwhile, Boeckelman argues, a campaign’s effectiveness may depend on the kind of election they’re running in.

“They do work, in primaries, I think there’s no doubt about that,” Boeckelman said. “In general elections, they can work. I think they work less because a lot of people have their minds made up.”

Looking to the future … both professors agree that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and now even TikTok have changed the game when it comes to political messaging.

“Whatever it happens to be that they use and usually in multiple platforms because ... they’re trying to reach a wide range of people who might not tune into ordinary news stations or political shows,” Hagle said.

This story is the first part of a two-part series exploring the history of campaign advertising and the role broadcasters have in distributing those ads.