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The art and science of political ads

This election year, expect political advertising to get more targeted and personalized, says Government scholar Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto.

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Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is a Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a visiting scholar in the Department of Government and Director of Communications for Latino Decisions.


Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto

Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto specializes in campaigns and elections, political marketing, political psychology, immigration, race, ethnicity and gender. 

The handsome mariachi singer reminds us that, “it doesn’t matter if we’re from San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Dallas, The Valley, Houston, or El Paso, what matters is that we vote for Obama because his struggle is our struggle.” The Viva Obama ad goes on to show Latino Texans in their homes, at rallies and at their places of work all singing along with the chorus line “Viva Obama.”

The “Viva Obama” ad that aired in the lead up to the 2008 Texas primary is phenomenal and not just because of its chorus line that is near impossible to get out of your head. The ad is so good because it micro-targets down to the sub-sub-group level. The message was directed to a very specific audience, Latino Texans, Tejanos. At the same time, the ad recognized the regional differences among Latino Texans highlighting a nuanced sensitivity, while calling on Tejanos to put aside these differences and come together in support of Barack Obama.

Every election cycle millions of dollars are spent on advertising and in this year’s presidential election the price tag will be well into the billions.  Just in the first couple of weeks of the current presidential primary close to 70 million has been spent on television ads alone. While fortunes are being spent on ads voter participation models have tended to downplay their effectiveness. Political ads are seen as impersonal and void of the personal touch that comes with more direct forms of communication. For example contact through door-to-door canvassing or town halls allows complex information to be conveyed and better tailored to the recipient.

Research has shown that the more direct forms of mobilization do have a greater likelihood of getting people to turnout but they are time and human capital intensive. The limitation of this strategy is that it is costly to directly communicate with all potential voters. The strength of indirect mobilization in the form of ads lies more in the quantity rather than quality of the communication. Per capita, advertisements are a cost effective way to reach individuals. But ads have been seen as marginally effective at best and demobilizing at worst when voters become overwhelmed by the number and negativity of ads.

While political ads do not necessarily create the opportunities for citizens to participate or reduce the costs of registering to vote, they can serve the function of reducing information costs by informing citizens about the political stances and capabilities of the candidates running for office. Ads can also increase the salience of the issues at stake and the relevance of participation. Coupled with direct forms of communication and mobilization political advertisements make for a powerful message medium.

Election 2012 graphic


The 2012 election season is promising to be one of the most unpredictable cycles in recent history.

Experts from across The University of Texas at Austin will weigh in here on the politics and the issues.

In the past decade political ads have become much more personalized. Consumer market research and the growth explosion of media outlets have allowed political ads to convey specific messages to specific groups leading to an approximation of the more direct forms of communication. Political strategists no longer have to rely on ads with only a general message that airs one of the three major networks. Ads can now be targeted to speak to Midwest soccer moms that are tuning in to the Lifetime channel at 10 a.m. on weekdays. The message that this ad will convey will be very different than that targeted toward Latino males ages 18 to 29 watching soccer on Univision on a Sunday afternoon. Ultimately both messages are being conveyed through a screen, but today that message speaks much more directly to the viewer.

Karl Rove is the father of political micro-targeting. He relied on rich individual level data from the consumer marketing world to understand the diverse segments within the population. More importantly, Rove elaborated tailored messages to resonate and mobilize different electorates. Since 2000, micro-targeting has become a campaign staple and has only grown in the level of detail it encompasses.

In the 2012 election cycle we will see ads targeted to left-handed political science majors at Big 12 Schools — OK, maybe not quite that specific, but close. One thing is for sure, micro-targeted political ads will clutter our airwaves and our webpages.  And while we may not be thrilled at the message bombardment, we can at least expect the ads we do consume to have our very particular characteristics in mind. The recent incorporation of consumer market data into the field of political advertising has allowed a tad bit more science to influence the art of political advertising.

Victoria’s latest research on political ads appeared in the December 2011 edition of the Journal of Political Marketing.  

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