Interest Groups and TV Ads: Can They Change Your Mind?

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 Aleena Khan, covers the new article by Joshua L. Kalla, Yale University, and David E. Broockman, University of California, BerkeleyOutside Lobbying” over the Airwaves: A Randomized Field Experiment on Televised Issue Ads“. 

Political candidates and elected officials have engaged in extensive efforts to change voter opinions with targeted tactics. However, political candidates aren’t the only players in the game when it comes to policymaking. Organized groups use a variety of approaches—either inside or outside lobbying strategies—to influence public policy. While inside lobbying involves making direct contact with elected officials and bureaucrats to argue their case, outside lobbying involves using advertisements to mobilize group members and the public, organizing protests, or encouraging group members and the public to write letters to their representatives. With more television advertisements than ever before, the question arises: How do interest groups’ outside lobbying strategies, particularly TV advertisements, affect the public’s opinions on issues? Do these TV ads succeed in changing the public’s mind?

Political scientists Joshua Kalla and David Broockman use the discipline’s first household-level field experiment of this kind to examine this question, investigating how television advertisements covering LGBTQ non-discrimination and immigration influence the public attitudes towards and knowledge of these issues, as well as their intent to engage in political activism. They find that television advertisements by organized groups do indeed persuade some of the public, but not always. For instance, an LGBTQ non-discrimination ad they tested had effects, but two ads about immigration they tested did not.

Existing research on the effectiveness of television advertising has largely focused on candidate campaign advertising and how it affects voter choices. Kalla and Broockman note that prior research suggests that television issue advertising, in particular, may be more persuasive than candidate campaign advertising. Without an explicit party label, issue advertising is less likely to face resistance from partisans compared to candidate ads. Therefore, Kalla and Broockman argue that outside lobbying strategies that make use of television advertising may be more successful at persuading the public than candidate ads. However, they do also acknowledge that the effects may decline over time. In other words, the public’s opinion, and willingness to engage in political action may only change for a short while.

To test the persuasion effects, Kalla and Broockman conducted a field experiment with over 30,000 respondents in several states. The field experiment involved assigning respondents to one of three treatment groups: (1) a group that received ads about an asylum seeker and about a woman who previously thought immigrants should “get in line” but then learned that the immigration system is broken; (2) a group that also received the ad about the woman who learned the system is broken and an ad about an employee who found out that an undocumented co-worker also pays taxes; and (3) a group that received an ad about an older Christian couple who believed that nobody should be refused services for being LGBTQ. These ads were designed by partner LGBTQ and immigration organizations.

“Kalla and Broockman conclude that issue advertisements by organized groups can affect public opinion and can teach viewers new information – however, the effects also depend on the ad and how long the ad runs or.” The partner organizations aired these ads for three weeks in households across California, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin – exposing the average household to the ads about 19.7 times. About one-third of the respondents received an email invitation to take a survey about the topics covered in the ads while the ads were still airing, another one-third received an invitation one day after the ads stopped airing, and the final one-third of respondents received an invitation three days after the ads stopped airing. To assess how the ads changed the viewer’s attitudes, Kalla and Broockman’s survey asked respondents about prejudice toward immigrants, immigration policy, prejudice toward LGBTQ individuals, LGBTQ policy, and various political actions in support of these issues. The survey also asked factual questions mentioned in the ads and questions to see if the ads were memorable.

Kalla and Broockman compare the effects for each condition and find that, though the respondents were able to recall the ads after a few days, they were less likely to defend increasing support for more inclusionary government policies and decreasing prejudice. More specifically, the ads decreased prejudice against LGBTQ people and increased support for LGBTQ-inclusive policies while the ads were airing but mostly for the Democratic respondents. However, these effects declined one day and three days after the ads stopped airing. In addition, the ads did not seem to affect whether respondents would be willing to take political action in support of LGBTQ rights. For the immigration ads, the viewers learned new information about undocumented immigrants paying taxes, but the ads did not appear to affect viewers attitudes towards immigration. Furthermore, the ads did not affect whether respondents would be willing to take political action in support of immigration rights.

Kalla and Broockman conclude that issue advertisements by organized groups can affect public opinion and can teach viewers new information – however, the effects also depend on the ad and how long the ad runs or. If they are looking to change attitudes in the long-term, after the ads stop airing, organized groups may have to reconsider television advertising as a strategy for certain types of issues. Perhaps, the authors suggest, more personal conversations about issues such as LGBTQ rights and immigration may have larger and long-lasting effects.

  • Aleena Khan is a PhD student in American Politics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include political identity, political behavior, political communication, and political psychology. Aleena’s research involves investigating Americans’ perceptions of anti-Americanism and the consequences of those perceptions for Americans’ policy preferences toward outgroups, particularly Muslims. Outside of her studies, Aleena works to promote a positive department culture and support her fellow graduate students as part of her departments’ graduate student association and she is also involved in her local community, Urbana-Champaign, where she currently serves as a youth mentor.
  • KALLA, JOSHUA L., and DAVID E. BROOCKMAN. 2021. “Outside Lobbying’ over the Airwaves: A Randomized Field Experiment on Televised Issue Ads.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–7.
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