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Do Political TV Ads Still Work?


One more twist in an already unusual campaign season - the candidate on the Republican side who spent the most money on TV ads by far is lagging far behind in the polls. The two candidates who did best in Iowa hardly spent anything compared to years past.

NPR's Scott Detrow takes a look at whether the old-fashioned political TV spot is becoming obsolete.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: The question of whether spending millions on TV ads still makes any sense isn't very new.

FRANKLIN FOWLER: I mean, probably as long as I've been doing this, people have been talking about the death of television.

DETROW: That's Erika Franklin Fowler. She directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and studies political advertising.

FOWLER: And there's no doubt that that is eventually where we're going, but it's certainly not the case right now.

DETROW: Campaigns are putting more and more of a focus on online advertising. There's a couple reasons for that. First of all, it's cheaper. But more importantly, campaigns can focus online ads on specific voters with pinpoint accuracy. TV is basically the opposite of that. But Fowler says campaigns still pour the bulk of their budgets into it for one big reason.

FOWLER: Television is still the easiest way to reach those people who are undecided and don't necessarily seek out politics on their own.

DETROW: In other words, the passive of voters who don't show up at rallies or sign up for campaign email updates, but still plan to be there on election day. That's why New Hampshire stations like WMUR are jampacked with ads right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For America, Jeb Bush.


MARCO RUBIO: I'm Marco Rubio. I approve this message, and I'm asking for your vote.


TED CRUZ: I'm Ted Cruz, and I approve this message.

DETROW: Still, the outcome of the Iowa caucuses raise some questions about the value of ads. According to NBC News, Jeb Bush and his allies spent nearly $15 million on ads in Iowa, far more than any other Republican. Bush wound up with less than 3 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Donald Trump spent only $3 million on ads in Iowa and came in second. John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, says that's less a reflection of TV ads' value and more because of the crowded Republican primary.

JOHN SIDES: Candidates that have a lot of money to spend on advertisements are dealing with a broader information environment that's been largely dominated by Donald Trump.

DETROW: Ads do work, Sides says. But in order to be effective, a voter needs to see them over and over.

SIDES: Sometimes, people seem to assume that advertisements are like nuclear radiation and, you know, once you're exposed, it stays with you for the rest of the campaign and the rest of your life. I think ads are more like Tylenol. You take the medicine, but it wears off relatively quickly.

DETROW: One company that's trying to figure exactly how effective TV ads are is Ace Metrix. Mark Bryant is a vice president with the company. He says Ace Metrix runs political ads by online panels of about 500 people and has them register responses across a range of categories.

MARK BRYANT: Things like attention, agreement, relevance.

DETROW: And for all of the topsy-turvy-ness (ph) of this year's campaign, the most effective ad Ace has seen is pretty, well, traditional.

BERNIE SANDERS: We said it will be over our dead bodies if you cut Social Security.

DETROW: It's Democrat Bernie Sanders talking about a bedrock campaign issue.

BRYANT: In terms of watchibility (ph), persuasion and agreement, Bernie's social security ad tops them all.

DETROW: So if you're tired of the political ads on your television, especially if you're here in New Hampshire, I'm sorry to say that online advances aside, they're not going anywhere anytime soon. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Manchester. N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.