The Arms Race For an Audience: Can Campaigns Use Frequency To Sway Voters?

October 23, 2008

Repetition can and has proved a deadly political strategy in recent months, but has it necessarily won out voters? I’d like to cite a quote by former USSR leader Vladimir Lenin, reading:

 “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”

The strategic beauty of this quote is simply because it has essentially lasted into the present and proved itself when associated with the past. But what is arguable is that campaigns have put this quote into practice — with political ads. 

With a seventh grade education (and counting), I am not ready to make a statement about a past world war nor am I about to call anything or everything thrown around the political spectrum a “lie,” but it is unimaginable not to disregard that the concept of Lenin’s quote has surrounded our daily lives. Living in California, media outlets and advertising are close to impossible to escape, only escalating as the voting season has transitioned itself into full swing. But what it also noticeable is the volume in which these ads are coming.

For example, Proposition 8, aimed at taking away certain gay rights, has been advertised almost entirely against by No On 8, with a ratio of 5:1 to their opposition, Yes On 8. This lopsided press swing shows a win in funding to No On 8, but it also begs the question: could more ads from one campaign than another ultimately win a large number of votes? 

Obviously gay marriage is an issue that isn’t likely to be effected by the press, but is this also the same in the fragile politics of a national election? 

What strikes me even more is the similarly advertising and funding wise between Barack Obama and No On 8 — both have sufficiently more ads and money than the opposing campaign, and both are seemingly in the lead. 

So I’ll ask the commenters once more — has Obama’s frequent on-air time and sufficient donation lead effected the polls, and will it effect the voting booth?


23 Responses to “The Arms Race For an Audience: Can Campaigns Use Frequency To Sway Voters?”

  1. Jon Says:

    I think Obama’s saturation of the airwaves has led to the ossifying of some of his core messages, though I’d disagree that they have somehow imbued them with “truth.” For example, nearly any rigorous analysis reveals that John McCain’s health care proposal will, in the medium run, lead to more uninsured Americans (McCain’s tax credit is tied to the CPI, but health care spending outpaces inflation — as health care costs rise faster than inflation, the value of the credit decreases). So, yes, I think Obama’s significant lead in advertising expenditure has helped him, though it’s not clear that absent a resonant message, the same advertising would have benefited McCain in the same way.

    BTW, thank you for the compliments on the blog.

  2. Terrant Says:

    I think that it is having an effect maybe not necessarily for changing people’s mind but in diluting the power of McCain’s ads (and making him spend money in markets that republicans traditionally spend money doesn’t hurt Obama’s cause either).

  3. pacer521 Says:


    No, problem, thanks for visiting and leaving your input.

    I don’t think this argument won’t be particularly healthy if I put in my thoughts on policies, but I do very much agree that if McCain had the advantage money wise that Obama does right now he would have a very good change to get the same benefits Obama is getting with his advertising.

  4. pacer521 Says:


    I also agree here in part. Almost all voters will stick to their views on a certain candidate no matter how well advertised he/she is, but there will always be a certain amount of voters who will sway, in my opinion.

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. fifthdecade Says:

    The Republicans are past masters at telling a lie over and over and having so many people believe it. Just today McCain was claiming once again that “Obama will put taxes up for small businesses” when anyone who listened to the debates will be able to tell you Obama actually said nobody earning less than $250,000 a year – including small businesses – would have their taxes increased. Yet McCain keeps on repeating the lie and says it enough times that the 5% of people who will pay more manage to persuade some of the 95% of people who will get a tax cut that they won’t. Mad.

  6. Kimberly Says:

    I think Obama’s ability to air ads and spend money that McCain doesn’t have forces people to look at him who probably would’ve otherwise written him off. It’s a win-win for Obama, in my opinion.

  7. JustMes Says:

    I think advertising and extensive media coverage should make people question a person’s motives. Someone who seemingly beats a message into your head is like a dog who likes to mark his territory over and over and over again. I actually am de-tuned by the abundance of Obama coverage. I can no longer listen to him babble of promises with no proven record and only constant changes in his proposals. Not to mention his running mate Biden who seemingly is a complete mule.

    Until recently I would have told you that I have never felt a party affiliation for either side. I’ve spent countless hours reading and listening to both parties arguments and proposals. Recently I have discovered that I am not Democrat nor Republican but rather consider myself to be conservative by nature. What I mean is that the core values in which I was raised seem to shine through in how I lean in this election.

    I understand the concept of “spread the wealth” but not at the sacrifice of the “American Dream.” Big corporations do run this country, but we have an idea that we (middle class)e could be rich if we work hard for it. Everything can be ours. No matter if this country ends up going Socialist with Obama or stays a Capitalist by nature with McCain the one thing that remains the same is that big corporations will still control this country. The main fundamental difference will be found in the freedoms we could loose along the way.

    My parents raised me to believe that working hard can lead to great things. Study hard, work hard, treat people how you want to be treated and you will find that life will fall into place. Love with all of your heart and keep family close. My family has see the hardest of times from being homeless to sitting in the middle class in a beautiful home with a pool. It was a matter of how well we worked and leaned on each other.

    I fear the core values of America are slipping away. We want to reward the lazy with money that can potentially be coming from the middle class. Not the very rich. Why has no on questioned Obama’s motives with his celebrity friends? He has so many supporters from Hollywood who can’t stay married for more than one year, who have screwed up kids, are involved in drugs and never really see the real side to life from a middle class perspective.

    Everyone complains about the Bush administration and how corrupt things are. This is with what is to be considered a relatively small government, Obama wants MORE government. Can we really afford more government?

    I’m sorry I got off subject some, but here is my over all conclusion. The abundance of the Obama advertising has actually pushed me away. I hate celebrity endorsements, they have no place in an election. It’s another item that pushes me away. I will never be the type of person to be grabbed by the nose and led around by the media or celebrities. It’s time to think for your-selves by taking everything as 50/50 lies and truth. (Both sides)

    P.S. I don’t think we should be forced into Health care. WE are not the problem, the health care system is. They need to crack down the health care system and drugs, then you will see an over all solution.

    Oh and the $250,000 tax increase WILL effect small business’s in a BIG way. I work for a family owned business with 5 employees and I fear this tax increase may cost me my job. Small companies are already 33% tax here. Why don’t they focus on the PEOPLE making 1Million or more a year….such as the people from AIG.

  8. huxbux Says:

    I would go so far as to say that Obama’s extensive air time over McCain has not effected the election in any appreciable manner.

    The ability to advertise is directly related to a candidate’s ability to raise campaign funds. The more funds you have, the more you spend on advertisements, and the more quantity of ads a campaign a candidate produces. It would seem rational to think that because a candidate has more money, his chances dramatically increase to win an election. More money, more ads, more influence.

    However, while there is a correlation between a candidate’s war chest and his chances of winning, there is no causation. It’s not a candidate’s money that determines the outcome of an election. Rather it’s a candidate’s appeal that determines the amount of money he raises. Who are you more likely to donate to? A candidate who appeals to you or a candidate who does not appeal to you? The more voters a candidate appeals to, the larger potential number of donations a candidate can solicit donations from.

    So, how could we really know if it was a candidate’s appeal that raises the money or the money that raises a candidate’s appeal? Consider that the only real way to answer that would be to look at elections in which the same two candidates ran against each other consecutive times with varying campaign spending. In fact, such a research has already be done and examined literally thousands of congressional elections since 1972.

    It found that the amount of money a candidate spent did not influence the result. A winning candidate who spent half as less money as in a previous election against the same opponent lost only 1% of the vote. A losing candidate who spent nearly twice as much money as in a previous election against the same opponent gained only 1% of the vote.

    Candidates spend a sizable portion of their finances on advertising. For instance, Obama has raised an estimated $600 million this year and has spent $241 million on ads. But it really makes no difference at all how much he makes and how many ads he produces. His appeal to voters is what allowed him to raise that much money and turn nearly half of that money into advertising.

    You could say that the amount of advertising you see for one candidate or another is just a representation of his/her voter appeal. When one candidate airs more ads then another candidate that means the candidate with more ads is more appealing, the candidate with less ads is less appealing.

    With a 1% net loss or gain to be had through advertising, I’d say that no amount of advertising effects the outcome of an election in any real way. These ads are more like popularity indexes then anything else.

  9. pacer521 Says:


    Thanks for the comment — I guess that is your opinion.


    I agree, it never hurts to have people see you over and over. My household has gotten more supportive of Obama the more he pops up. Thanks for the comment.

  10. pacer521 Says:


    No problem –thanks for taking the time to put down your thoughts. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, personally, I believe that the more ads one candidate has, the more people will look at him/her and possibly swing their vote to them. Thanks a bunch for the comment, I encourage others to respond to your words on policies.

  11. rhapsodyinbooks Says:

    I believe a more important question, as raised by Noam Chomsky in “The Manufacture of Consent” is the question of *what* actually is being debated. That is, if both sides in a debate accept certain presumptions (such as, we have a right to carry out aggression against foreign nations in order to control their natural resources as long as we legitimate it by identifying a “dictator”), then “debate” is permissible (such as, how long to maintain a military presence in Iraq). As Chomsky argues, “the device of feigned dissent” is democracy’s equivalence to the use of violence in totalitarian regimes.

    Given, however, that you are questioning only the efficacy of more advertisement versus less, the answer is clear from the amount of money spent: marketing and psychological research shows conclusively that sound bites, subtle product placement that registers with the subconscious, name recognition (separate from any content associated with that name), and repetitive exposure are all significant variables in affecting behavior.

    Gay marriage, however, brings an altogether different can of worms into the picture, and that is religion. Religious views *are* amenable to modification (e.g., the widespread adoption by Catholics of birth control pills in spite of Vatican exhortation against the practice), but I believe they would be less susceptible to media manipulation than political positions not connected to how one interprets Biblical and/or clerical injunctions.

  12. A.E. Says:


    I’d say that it also depends on what kind of model of media theory we’re using. A lot of people use the “hypodermic needle” model of media influence, where people receive a certain message and uncritically take it. There have been a lot of theoretical advances in the field of media theory since then, showing that people tend to be much more resistant to messaging than anticipated–or that, they tend to modify the meanings to fit their ideologies or ends.

  13. pacer521 Says:


    I actually took a look at those numbers before I wrote this post, and they seem to be correct. I also agree with the fact that only a candidate’s appeal will give him a heavy war chest. But I still believe that when a candidate who happens to have a great amount of appeal puts up an array of ads compared to his opponent, it can be used as yet another way to get influence passed out to the center and undecideds.

    Then of course there are the negative ads, which we could have a different discussion on, but my point here is to raise the question: is Obama’s ad and war chest advantage going to win any votes for him, and I think you answered it better than anyone else here, so thanks a lot for the comment, Huxbux.

  14. rhapsodyinbooks Says:

    Huxbux cleverly inverts the question to provide an answer (“It’s not a candidate’s money that determines the outcome of an election. Rather it’s a candidate’s appeal that determines the amount of money he raises.’) but the study he cites that yields the 1% figure researched congressional elections. People are more attuned to presidential contests because more is at stake. And centrists and undecideds, as you note pacer521, will be paying even more attention. With all the sophisticated economic and media advisers on both sides, it is hard to believe there is only a 1% return for presidential elections. On the other hand, a mere 1% could make all the difference. Moreover, more subtle forces are also at play. Consider, for example (quoting from Scientific American, “a paper published today in Science … found the following: a person holding a cup of hot coffee was more likely to view others as warmer than if he or she were holding a glass of iced java. The researchers discovered further that volunteers holding something warm were also more more likely to hand over a $1 gift certificate for ice cream to pals than claim a Snapple voucher for themselves. And if they were clutching something cold? You guessed it: they were more likely to keep the Snapple for themselves. In other words, researchers concluded, holding something warm makes you feel more generous toward others; holding something cold makes you, well, cold and selfish.” Ads can affect you in ways you don’t even know about.

  15. confused Says:

    Pacer; I think you lost your way in this post. You began with the proposition that a lie often repeated becomes the truth. You then site the prop 8 and Obama media blitz as examples. While not inferring that either of the two contain facts or fiction. I read one comment that said something to the effect that if one but listened to Obama in the last debate it could be seen that he wasn’t going to raise taxes on small busineses. Realy. If you listen to the plans for trillions of new spending and spread it over only 5% of the tax payers the math imediately doesn’t add up. Taxes will be raised on everyone. Just the bush tax cut, that he vows to allow to expire will raise taxes on the lowest bracket by at least 5%. My grand daddy used to say paper will lay still and let you put anything on it. Just this week he(obama) pulled a page out of the thirty year old democrat playbook, saying that Mcain was going to cut medicare.. That has been a lie that has been repeated for thirty years. medicare has never been cut. I think voters, especially the elderly voters that that lie is meant to scare are not moved by that claim any longer. An other quote that is worth repeatin is ” figures don’t lie but liars do figure.”

  16. 1superdave Says:

    While there can be no doubt that Obama’s expending one half a billion dollars promoting himself, you have to ask why is this still to close to call with only ten days to go before the election, Add to what he has spent to the uncalcuable billions of dollars in both positive press for himself and negative press For Mccain Palin, the question becomes can someone buy the Presidency of the U. S.. I think that a ground swell has began, among fair minded Americans, that says if the media ins’t going to do it’s job and vet both canidates fairly, then they’ll do it themselves. I think this has had a back fire effect of lending more, not less credibiliy to rumors and half truths ie he’s amuslim, bill ayers, wright, birth certificate, etc…In the end the answer will come on November forth. Buyers remorse also has a price.

  17. 1superdave Says:

    You leave out of the mix that while only a small precntage of voters are persuaeable to change who they agree with, the base can be energized on the opposite side to turn out in droves. Kinda like trying to extingish a fire with gasoline. I, like many others I know have been hosed with gasoline. Keep dising Sarah.

  18. 1superdave Says:

    My latest post at 1superdave at word press is the same topic from a slightly diferent slant. It bears taking a look.

  19. huxbux Says:


    The question then becomes is it an advertisement that creates that “warm” sensation in the viewer for a particular candidate or is it the viewers positive perception of the candidate that stimulates that “warmth” when viewing an advertisement(the converse relates equally to an advertisement for a candidate a viewer perceives as “cold”)?

    If the question is to be approached from a psychological avenue rather then a mathematical one, then there is research by Taber that supports the idea that how much a candidate appeals to a voter determines how that voter reacts to an advertisement about that candidate ergo a viewers affected state determines the cognition of an ad and subsequent behavior. The weight of a viewers behavior towards a political ad lies with the predisposed affected state of the viewer towards the ad. Simply, the viewer’s affected state for a candidate effects behavior more then the affected message of the ad itself.

    If I’m an Obama supporter, I more likely to feel “warm” when viewing a pro-Obama ad, and more likely to feel “cold” when viewing an anti-Obama ad.

    (Research has shown that advertising has the effects you listed previously, but I suspect that research centered around commercial advertising. A paper issued from Stanford showed a clear difference in effects between commercial and political ads. Viewers tend to be far more dismissive of political ads, but more accepting of commercial ads.)

    As to the undecided vote, it’s difficult to say that they are all making pain-staking efforts to devote their full attention to the election process considering surveys have found a portion of the undecided demographic are those that have historically not participated in the voting process. Some of them are undecided because they aren’t interested enough to bother. Estimates as to the available undecided vote in any election is often sketchy and difficult to determine. They can range from anywhere to 11% to 3%. Are they even going to show up to the polls come election day?

    I may have been a bit too dramatic in my previous post. Political spending and ads do have an effect, I just think it’s minimal and an often overstated one, where other variables play a larger role in determining the outcome of an election. The original question was “has advertising effected the polls and will it effect the outcome?” I’d have to answer in the affirmative. Shifting 1% of the vote is an effect, but I was interested in giving a quantitative answer.

  20. Alberto Says:

    I feel like yes, repetition can be convincing but ONLY to those who are ill-informed in the first place.

    For example, no one can convince me that 2+2 is anything other than 4, as long as we’re both talking about the same definition of addition. However, if it is a topic where there’s no chance I could have the whole truth about, then perhaps in time I can be led to believe that way. And for those with absolutely no idea what’s going on, the first opinion they stumble upon may be the way they lean.

    That’s why it’s so important for a campaign to step up ads when the opposing campaign does so. This is to ensure that someone isn’t likely to fall for the whole frequency trap.

  21. rhapsodyinbooks Says:

    Another good inversion (eversion?). (And when I used the word “clever” in my previous post I meant it as a tip of the hat, not as sarcasm.) I love teasing out (or getting teased out of) lurking variables and spurious correlations. Isn’t Pacer the best for stimulating such good discussions?

  22. rhapsodyinbooks Says:

    Possible follow-up to above from the Wired Blog Network:

    “Obama Gets His Money’s Worth On TV
    By Betsy Schiffman October 31, 2008 | 6:24:37 PMCategories: Television, The Ratings Game
    The Obama Show, a 30-minute Oprah-style infomercial that was broadcast on seven television networks on Wednesday night, was criticized by many as an unnecessarily extravagant home-media invasion. But in reality, the TV air time was pretty cheap for the Obama campaign.
    The primetime show attracted more than 33 million viewers for a rumored/reported cost of somewhere between $3 million and $7 million. CBS, NBC and Fox were rumored to get a million bucks each for the half-hour of air time. Let’s assume, liberally, that Obama paid similar sums to the other networks (BET, MSNBC, TV One and Univision) — if that’s the case, he paid roughly 21 cents per viewer.
    As a basis of comparison, Superbowl 2008 advertisers reportedly paid an average of $2.7 million for 30-second spots, and the game was watched by an estimated 97.5 million viewers.”

  23. pacer521 Says:


    thank for pointing this out! I have in fact been really busy, but that has ended and you will start to see some more posts.

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