Seeing Spots?

John Henderson & Alexander Theodoridis

Picture1A hotly contested midterm election brought with it an unusual onslaught of campaign advertising in America. Amazingly, nearly $2 billion was devoted to online advertising in 2018. This represents 22% of total ad buys, more than doubling the figure for the 2016 presidential contest. Mirroring this increase, voters now have much greater control over the amount and type of advertising and other political content they consume. Indeed, voters today have many options – beyond tv, they can actively seek out political information through online media outlets, campaign websites, and social media networks. The DVR and on-demand viewing have put consumers in greater control of their advertising intake. And options like clicking the remote to switch the channel, averting one’s gaze, or getting up to grab food when a political ad appears on television have long been part of the American voter’s selective receipt arsenal. But, what types of political ads are voters most likely to watch or avoid? And how do two core features of campaign advertisements – negativity and partisan source – factor into the choices of viewers?

In an article appearing in the current issue of Political Behavior, we answer these questions with results from a novel survey experiment. Our study exploits the fact that many on-demand video platforms (such as YouTube) give viewers the option to skip an advertisement after a few seconds. Knowing that many online survey respondents are likely familiar with this feature, we replicated it during the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a nationally representative internet survey fielded by YouGov. Subjects were randomly shown a negative or positive campaign ad from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and were allowed to skip after 5 seconds. We recorded the length of time each respondent watched the ad and then provided an opportunity to replay it, share it with friends on social media, or request a link to similar ads.

Our most consistent and striking finding is that the propensity to watch ads depends predominantly on their party source. Both sides seem to be more willing to skip ads from the other party, but Republicans do so much more consistently. Republican respondents were far less likely to watch any Obama ads, while Democrats behaved more heterogeneously. We also see that partisan screening is more pronounced for behaviors that require more effort, such as requesting to share ads on social media. Rather surprisingly, given the conventional wisdom that negative advertising attracts eyeballs, we find that advertising tone does not meaningfully influence watching, skipping, or sharing behaviors.

Our findings show that politicians may face challenges in communicating to out-party voters, even with negative appeals, particularly in media environments where voters are tasked with seeking out political content. Politicians can more easily reach their own partisans in discretion-driven markets, though this may be asymmetric across parties. Our study suggests that partisan selectivity, unlikely to recede in the face of growing polarization, will play an increasingly important role in the multi-cast campaigns of the future.


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