Prime Time

Were the Romney and Obama TV Ads a Total Waste?

They spent a total of $1 billion on TV ads, but most were instantly forgettable—and none swayed opinion. Next time, writes John G. Geer, make the ads memorable.

11.09.12 9:00 PM ET

With approximately $1 billion spent on television advertising in this just-concluded presidential campaign, the looming question is what—if any—effect these ads had on the outcome. The emerging narrative seems to be that President Obama’s decision to define Governor Romney as a rich, out-of-touch elitist last summer helped carry him to victory. Of course, if Romney had won, the story would have been his genius to air ads late in the campaign and turn the election in his favor. 

In other words, whoever won this election, there would be a story about how these ads shaped the outcome. How could it be otherwise? How could $1 billion not have an effect?

We have only begun to analyze the data, but the early returns suggest that the ads in 2012 did have some effect, but were largely peripheral to the story about this election.

Were they a total waste? No. The candidates in some sense had no choice but to buy ads and a lot of them. They had the money, and if they did not carpet bomb the battleground states, they would have allowed the opposition to control the message. A one-sided campaign might, in fact, have moved a few voters and, in a close campaign, no rational candidate can risk that possibility. 

But let’s look at why the ads didn’t quite deliver the one-two punch ad buyers had hoped for. First, there were very few undecideds. Americans had opinions about President Obama—often strong ones—and 30-second ads weren’t going to alter them. Remember a year prior to the election, about 95 percent of Americans knew whether they would vote for or against the president. This pattern is not that unusual when incumbents run for reelection. In 2004, for example, the Bush campaign had a hard time moving people’s views of the president. Opinions in 2012 were even more entrenched given the increase in polarization. The bottom line is that there were few targets to aim at.

Second, and this will be more controversial, I believe the quality of ads on both sides were at best uninspired. The pressures of the 24/7 news cycle and the desire to win the battle each day kept these campaigns from producing high-quality ads. What evidence do I have for this claim? Well, consider that Obama and Romney each produced more than 100 televised ads in this cycle. In 1984, Reagan produced, by most accounts, fewer than 30 such spots. We don’t know for sure, but perhaps Reagan’s team had more time to create those ads than the Romney and Obama teams did 2012. Just think back on all the ads from this campaign. Were there any memorable ads? Were they any Daisy ads (credited with helping to fuel Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964)? Any Morning in America ads (Reagan’s 1984 blockbuster)?  Or even an ad the quality of the “Celebrity” ad from 2008 in which John McCain depicted Obama as little more than a celebrity?     

Perhaps the most compelling evidence about the lack of impact these ads had comes from the Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project. Vanderbilt asked a representative sample of 600 Americans to judge and evaluate more than 25 ads during the course of this presidential campaign. After seeing each ad, people were asked a number of questions, including how memorable the ad was and who they planned to vote for. The results are clear across all ads studied: the ads were not deemed memorable, nor did they significantly alter opinions. The surveys done this past summer, a time when the prevailing wisdom was that Obama was attacking Romney with great success, did not move the dials, either. 

When the history is written about the 2012 election, it will likely be a story about the fundamentals. The Latino vote, for example, that helped to carry President Obama to reelection reflected, in large part, decisions by the Republicans to veto immigration reform in 2006. In the same way, Obama’s decision to bail out the auto industry in 2009 was critical to his wins in Ohio and Michigan—forces that were strengthened by Romney’s public opposition to the auto bailout. Just consider that polls in the summer of 2012 served as a very powerful predictor of what happened on November 6. The intervening months and all the campaigning apparently did little to change the outcome.

Now, I am not saying campaigns don’t matter. But I am saying we need to be cautious in making strong claims that ads shaped the final outcome of this election. The 2016 contest could be much different. For starters, there won’t be an incumbent. But more important, party leaders might remember the lessons of 2012 and produce ads compelling enough to suggest that indeed it is morning again in America.