Race to 2016: How political advertisements change the game


Americans love advertisements. Whether it be the latest deodorant marketing ploy or an ad promoting a General Motors SUV, marketers will spend an estimated $189 billion on advertising this year in the US. With the advent of the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited funding by Super PACs, the US political landscape has changed to allow for the virtually unlimited funding of such ads. According to the Washington Post, spending has already reached upwards of $1.2 billion this election cycle. In an age of such massive spending, how has political advertising changed and what effects will it have on the race today?

Political advertising has evolved over the decades, and has most recently, has taken a shift toward extreme negativity. In the 1960s, advertisements were funded by the campaigns directly, meaning an overly negative advertisement could backfire. By funding negative commercials, campaigns could potentially harm themselves by turning off moderate voters. The turning point was the infamous “Willie Horton” advertisement that was run by a political organization supporting the elder George Bush’s campaign in 1988. Using the example of an African-American felon who committed a crime on a weekend pass, a political committee called “Americans for Bush” painted his rival, Michael Dukakis, as irresponsible and weak on crime. Had Bush himself approved the advertisement personally, he would have received flak for such negativity. Yet because an independent, third-party organization had funded the ad, the backlash was not there. Advertising began to turn sharply negative, as backlash in response to negative advertising was directed not at a campaign but at an independent organization.

During this election cycle, the political equivalent of “Americans for Bush.” Attempting to paint Donald Trump as an unethical, racist, and hot-headed businessman, the Super PAC spent all summer spending hundreds of millions of dollars to change voter perception. This would hypothetically be cancelled out by Trump’s own ads. But the catch is this: Trump ran virtually no ads this summer because of a lack of funding. In fact, it is likely that political promotions have only had a marked effect this campaign season because of the disparities in funding. According to Politico, the Clinton campaign had a $42.5 million war chest compared to Trump’s $1.3 million at the beginning of the summer. When it came to Super PACs, Federal Election Commission filings show how Priorities USA was raising five times what pro-Trump Super PAC Great America was able to earn. All these allowed Clinton to run anti-Trump ads unopposed since July.

The experiences of the Trump campaign, in this way, reek with similarities of the Romney campaign. After a brutal primary season, Mitt Romney and his super PACS were running low on campaign funds. As such, the Obama campaign was able to utilize the virtually unopposed summer airwaves to paint Romney as a cruel and greedy businessman. And those perceptions, with no effective rebuttal, stuck. The same problems exist with Trump. Unopposed advertising over the summer created a perception that Trump was temperamentally unfit to be commander-in-chief. According to CBS News, 67 percent of all voters consider Trump to be a “risky” choice. Without any proper response from the Trump campaign over the summer, the perceptions have stuck with him may thus prove fatal in the polling booth.