“Getting to Know You”: How Candidates Use Political Advertising Both On and Offline

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Ashley C.J. Daniels, covers the new article by Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University, Michael M. Franz, Bowdoin College, Gregory J. Martin, Stanford University, Zachary Peskowitz, Emory University and Travis N. Ridout, Washington State University “Political Advertising Online and Offline” 

Ah yes, Fall is now Winter.  The cool, crisp air has turned icier and more frigid.  Our hot apple cider has now become hot chocolate.  Fuzzy fall-colored sweaters have become warm winter coats (with matching masks, of course).  And as all these changes mark the end of a season in nature, it also signals the end of a season in politics—the end of the election season.  For months during most of the Fall season, our airwaves, televisions, social media feeds, mailboxes, and emails were filled with various campaign ads from various candidates at the local, national, and state levels all with the same goal: introducing themselves and their platforms to potential voters.  But were there any key differences between the multiple media platforms to get to know the candidate?   Researchers Erika Franklin Fowler, Michael M. Franz, Gregory J. Martin, Zachary Peskowitz, Travis N. Ridout explore this idea in their latest study for the American Political Science Review titled, “Political Advertising Online and Offline.”

Using data collected from the Facebook Ad Library and television data from the Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University, the researchers analyzed the content of the ads to see if there were significant differences in the use of ads between the two platforms during the 2018 midterm elections.  The study revealed some interesting results, starting with which platform candidates used more frequently.  Though all candidates seemed to use Facebook to an extent, the findings showed that candidates running in “down-ballot elections” (i.e.-  elections that are not as high level as a presidential, senate, governor, or U.S. congressional election) tend to use and run ads on Facebook earlier and more frequently than those running for office at the federal level (think U.S. President, U.S. Senator, Governor, or a member of Congress).  Why? The answer is likely cost.  Along with Facebook being a free service that connects millions of people in the United States and across the world, the cost of running advertisements is considerably cheaper than running an advertisement on television.  In observing advertising spending between candidates, governor and U.S. Senate campaigns spend up to a million dollars more on television ads than they do on Facebook.  For a mayoral or school board candidate who likely does not have the same kind of high-level funds as a candidate running for U.S. Senate, using Facebook is a cost effective approach to make the largest impact with little resources.

In terms of the content of the ads shown between Facebook and television, there were striking differences there as well.  In addition to the differences of who uses Facebook (local candidates vs. statewide candidates), the social media outlet also serves as a multifunction platform where candidates can 1) increase candidate advertising because of low costs, 2) use the advertising for other purposes like fundraising, and 3) strategically craft their message to a particular audience they choose in their Facebook settings. “Facebook ads also tend to appear more clearly partisan (i.e.- contain more clues to the candidate’s party affiliation).”  But even with the ads being partisan, the Facebook advertisements appear less negative to a seemingly smaller audience of controlled followers, contrary to the general idea that the smaller the audience, the more likely a candidate would directly employ harsher, more negative campaigns.

Potential voters can use this study to help them better understand what media platforms are the best for getting to know a candidate’s views.” 

On television, the advertisements focused on highlighting the shortcoming of the candidate’s opponent.  Because of the political diversity of television audiences, candidates who use television ads tend to focus on persuading viewers.  Without this factor, researchers claim, the focus of television advertisements would likely shift more towards rallying loyal supporters.  In a direct question asking if there was a difference in tone between Facebook advertisements and televisions advertisements, the researchers found that “Facebook ads [were] significantly more positive than television ads.”

Studies like this from Fowler, Franz, Martin, Peskowitz, and Ridout are critical in understanding how important media is when connecting with voters.  Though the article is geared toward academics in political science, this is not the only group who could benefit from such knowledge.  Candidates and campaign workers could use this study to strategize about how to place advertisements on various platforms during their campaigns.  Potential voters can use this study to help them better understand what media platforms are the best for getting to know a candidate’s views.  The study also offers insight on how political advertising works in the social media era with older strategies (television advertisements) being compared to newer strategies (social media).  And just the seasons change, these findings may change our thinking about politics.

  • Ashley C.J. Daniels is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University. She conducts research in the areas of Black Politics, Black feminist and womanist theory, public opinion, and popular culture. After completing her undergraduate studies at Bowie State University (BSU), where she received a Bachelor of Arts in English, she continued her education by earning Master of Arts degree in Public Administration. Her dissertation is entitled, The Power of the Sister Vote, which explores how Black women candidates are evaluated by Black women voters who are members of four of the nine historic Black sororities of the National Pan Hellenic Council. Professionally, she works at the Delta Research and Educational Foundation in Washington, D.C.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review , Volume 115 , Issue 1 , February 2021 , pp. 130 – 149, “Political Advertising Online and Offline” by Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University, Michael M. Franz, Bowdoin College, Gregory J. Martin, Stanford University, Zachary Peskowitz, Emory University and Travis N. Ridout, Washington State University
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.