Why television advertising?
Various studies, including some of our own, have found that television advertising persuades. Though the persuasive effects are typically small, ads tend to have more impact in nomination races where candidates are less well known, and where voters can’t simply vote for the party — as in a national primary race.
Campaign consultants like to use video to persuade, as it can lead viewers to engage emotionally, which is helpful in driving interest. People also learn from television advertising, and it can even increase participation in politics — at least, under certain conditions. And while many have predicted that television ads are on their way out, old-fashioned TV ads are harder to skip than many online ads, and they remain a critical way that campaigns can reach voters.
And there is no better way to speak to nearly 100 million Americans at the same time than in a Super Bowl ad.
How do we know?
As directors of the Wesleyan Media Project, we track and analyze political advertising in real time during elections and have for the past decade. To help us put Bloomberg and fellow billionaire Tom Steyer’s ad spending into context, we draw on 20 years of data from Kantar/CMAG, a commercial tracking company, made available to us through the Wesleyan Media Project and the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
How different is 2020?
Advertising from two candidates in this year’s elections in particular is staggering. Our analysis shows that, to date, Bloomberg has aired seven times as many commercials (and Steyer, nearly five times as many) as the previous top ad spender in the presidential nomination race: Mitt Romney in 2008.
And consider this: Our data shows that between 2008 and 2020, all candidates, parties and outside groups combined — excluding Bloomberg and Steyer — sponsored $383.5 million in presidential ads through Jan. 26 of the election year. (These totals are not scaled to inflation.) Bloomberg and Steyer have combined to air more than $310 million since July 10, when Steyer first went on the air. That’s $310 million in six months compared with $383.5 million in 12 years.
Or think of the numbers from this angle: Bloomberg has aired nearly twice as many TV ads as Trump did during his entire 2016 campaign, including the general election: 232,196 compared with Trump’s 120,908. And Bloomberg’s spending on television ads of about $200 million is approaching Hillary Clinton’s total 2016 spending on ads of $257.6 million over the full election cycle.
As Bloomberg and Trump prepare to spend $10 million apiece, it is worth noting that each of these single ads will cost more than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has spent on broadcast television and national cable over the whole campaign so far, about $9.8 million, according to our analysis. In fact, leaving aside Steyer, no other candidate running for president in 2019 and 2020 has spent even $10 million on advertising. And only six previous candidates had spent more than $10 million on ads by this point in the campaign: Romney in 2008, with $28.1 million; Barack Obama in 2008, with $21.8 million; Clinton in 2008, with $18.3 million; Clinton in 2016, with $17.5 million; Sanders in 2016, with $14.1 million; and Howard Dean in 2004, with $10.6 million.
Why are the 2020 Super Bowl ads different?
Bloomberg’s and Trump’s decisions to air ads in the Super Bowl are not unique. Prior campaigns purchased much cheaper Super Bowl spots, though, on local television stations in targeted media markets. Obama, for instance, bought ad space in 27 media markets across 12 states during the 2008 Super Bowl, to the tune of just $550,000. That same year, John McCain aired an ad in one market in Missouri and Romney aired an ad in two markets in California during the big game. Both states had primaries just two days later. In 2016, Trump and Clinton bought a spot in one or two media markets each. But those cost tens of thousands of dollars, not the millions charged for a national spot.
Bloomberg has also purchased 15-second ads that ran during the AFC and NFC championship games in dozens of media markets. Former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Steyer also aired ads during the championship games, but combined, they spent only about a quarter as much, and the bulk of that came from Steyer.
Will the ads actually matter?
When Bloomberg’s and Trump’s ads air on Sunday, they will represent something unusual: a presidential nomination ad seen by nearly 100 million American viewers at the same time. Will the investment be worth it? If the ads’ messages are reported on and amplified by the news media, the spending may be savvy, especially for Bloomberg, who, at this point, has little to lose (cash aside). Indeed, compared with Trump, he is less well known and therefore has more to gain from a widely seen and discussed ad; however, we also know that political advertising’s persuasive effects tend to be short-lived. At the end of the day, asking one Super Bowl ad to not simply get voters’ attention, but also to maintain their support until they cast their ballots, is asking a lot. You might call it a Hail Mary.
Erika Franklin Fowler (@efranklinfowler) is associate professor of government at Wesleyan University and a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
Michael M. Franz (@mmfranz) is professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College and a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
Travis N. Ridout (@tnridout1) is the Thomas S. Foley distinguished professor of government and public policy at Washington State University and a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.