Do TV Attack Ads Work Anymore?

May 20, 2016
Originally published on May 26, 2016 2:23 pm

The first big T.V. advertising battle of the 2016 election is just beginning. Priorities USA, the big pro-Hillary Clinton superPAC began spending what it says will be $136 million on political ads.

Those ads may go a long way toward answering one of the biggest questions of this cycle: Is Donald Trump immune to negative advertising?

There's no doubt that Trump has broken lots of political rules and, so far at least, paid no price at all.

His new campaign chairman Paul Manafort says that Trump understood how to use "earned media" — otherwise known as news coverage — instead of paid media.

"Instead of using 30 second spots," Manafort told MSNBC, "he had a dialogue with the American people through the media and his campaign appearances."

Indeed, Trump was interviewed and covered so obsessively by cable and broadcast television that he simply overwhelmed the negative advertising against him. His conversation with voters also happened on social media, where he dominated during the primaries through his Twitter and Instagram posts.

Trump himself often boasts about how much money was spent against him — to no avail.

He spent about $20 million on political ads during the primaries while his opponents spent more than twice that much against him.

"You almost say, do ads mean anything?" Trump said after winning the N.Y. primary. "I think we're going to hurt the industry pretty much because people are going to say, 'What does an ad mean?'"

Now its Clinton's turn to see if she can do better than Trump's Republican opponents. Tim Miller, who ran one of the anti-Trump superPACs, thinks the Clinton campaign has some advantages the Never Trumpers didn't.

"She can go out and target specific groups — Hispanics, college-educated women, African Americans who are going to be very motivated to go against Trump," Miller said.

Targeting is the big innovation in political advertising. It predates 2016 but this year it will become even more precise and even more far-reaching.

Campaigns still spend the lion's share of their budgets on TV but each cycle they're spending more and more placing video content on digital media — which can be aimed like a laser beam at key voter groups. And compared to Republican primary voters, general election voters are younger, more diverse and more female — the kind of voters who get a lot of their information online and from social media.

And these voters still know very little about Trump, despite all his airtime and online presence.

Republican admaker Ashley O'Connor says that the Clinton campaign coming in with a sizable warchest and trying to define Trump early, the way Prioroties USA is doing, could have a real impact.

"The question," said O'Connor, "is what will Donald Trump do to respond?"

Eventually Trump too will advertise but his campaign has not yet reserved big chunks of ad time anywhere — although the Republican National Committee says it has reserved $150 million in digital advertising.

Trump himself has expressed skepticism about a modern, data-driven campaign. He told the AP that he thought that approach to reaching voters was "overrated."

And that sets up an interesting experiment — testing a completely non-traditional candidate using the media in non-traditional ways against a more traditional candidate who will use state of the art technology and targeting data.

Elizabeth Wilner at the Kantar Campaign Media Analysis group expects Clinton to have the "most smartly run presidential effort according to the rule book ever."

Meanwhile, Trump will continue to tweet and hold big rallies.

The outcome of this contest between Clinton's approach and Trump's will determine whether he has, in fact, rewritten the rules.

And we should have some real time results from this contest pretty soon.

In a few months, if Priorities' effort to define Trump works as well as the Democrats' similar early effort to define Mitt Romney did in 2012, Trump's numbers should soften.

"If you want to see the Godzilla versus King Kong battle of free media vs. paid media," said Ken Goldstein, a political scientist st the University of San Francisco, "just watch what happens to Trump's numbers with swing voters in swing states."

That will give us a clue about whether T.V. advertising works against Donald Trump or not.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The first big skirmish in the media war of the 2016 election has begun. This week, a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC started to spend lots of money on political ads. And that raised some important questions like - does political advertising work anymore? And does it work against a candidate like Donald Trump? NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Has Donald Trump broken all the rules of politics? His new campaign chairman Paul Manafort says yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS")

PAUL MANAFORT: It's the first modern campaign in the social media era. He understood how to use earned media instead of paid media. Instead of using 30 second spots, he had a dialogue with the American people, both through his access through the media and through his campaign appearances.

LIASSON: Manafort was speaking on MSNBC about how Trump dominates so-called earned media, otherwise known as news coverage, so much so that sometimes it seems this election could be called "The Donald Trump Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mr. Trump, thank you for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Donald Trump himself joins us live right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Donald Trump, who joins us on the line...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Joining me right now on the phone is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Mr. Trump, can you hear us?

DONALD TRUMP: I can.

LIASSON: And Trump has a huge presence on social media. His Twitter posts and Instagrams are shared throughout the echo chamber of political conversation. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an insurgent Republican in his day and now a Trump admirer, says Trump uses his personality and celebrity on free media to overcome negative political ads.

NEWT GRINGRICH: If you see him in your living room on earned media and you're seeing him, he undoes millions of dollars of negative advertising because he is more believable than the ads.

LIASSON: That, says Gingrich, is Trump's own theory. Here's Trump after winning the New York primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED RECORDING)

TRUMP: You could almost say - do ads mean anything? I think we're going to hurt the industry pretty much 'cause people are going to say - what does an ad mean?

LIASSON: Political ads didn't mean much against Trump in the primaries, which were an example of asymmetrical warfare - advantage Trump. Trump spent about $20 million on political ads. His opponents spent more than twice that against him. Tim Miller ran one of the anti-Trump super PACs. He says Hillary Clinton might fare better in the general election ad wars than his group did in the primaries.

TIM MILLER: The television advertising, painting it with a broad brush, you know, might not be as effective as it would be against a traditional candidate. But what Hillary has as an advantage is she can go out and target specific groups - Hispanics, college-educated women, you know, African-Americans, who are going to be very motivated to go against Trump.

LIASSON: Targeting predates 2016. And this year, it will become even more precise. Campaigns still spend the lion's share of their budgets on broadcast and cable television. But each cycle, they spend more and more money placing video content on digital media aimed like a laser beam at key voter groups. And compared to Republican primary voters, general election voters are younger, more diverse and more female, the kind of voters who get a lot of their information online and from social media. Republican ad maker Ashley O'Connor says for all his air time, these voters still know very little about Trump.

ASHLEY O'CONNOR: They hear about the rallies. They see the clips on TV. They can follow his Twitter account. But they really don't know that much about Donald Trump. And to be able to come in with a sizable war chest and lay that down and try to define him - yeah, I think that will have a very lasting impact. And, you know, the question is is - what will Donald Trump do to respond?

LIASSON: Eventually, Trump, too, will advertise. But so far, his campaign and affiliated super PACs have not reserved big chunks of ad time anywhere. Trump recently told the AP that he thinks a data-driven approach to reaching voters is overrated. So he'll keep tweeting and holding big rallies. And that sets up a handy controlled experiment, says Elizabeth Wilner of the Kantar Campaign Media Analysis Group.

ELIZABETH WILNER: You have a completely nontraditional candidate running in a completely nontraditional way using the media in ways it's never been used before and foregoing ways the media has been used in the past. And then you have a fairly traditional candidate who is equipped to the gills with state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology, targeting data. She will run the most smartly run presidential effort according to the rule book ever. And you're asking about whether the rules have been rewritten by Donald Trump. This is as pretty good a matchup as we're going to be able to get in terms of determining whether that's the case or not.

LIASSON: There'll be some real-time results from this match up pretty soon. Priorities USA, the pro-Clinton super PAC, is starting to spend what it says will be $130 million on video content - about three quarters on TV and one quarter on digital. University of San Francisco political scientist Ken Goldstein who studies political media, has his scorecard out and ready.

KEN GOLDSTEIN: If you're someone who wants to see the Godzilla versus King Kong battle of free media versus paid media, look at what happens the rest of May and in June. And look at what happens to Trump numbers. And that'll give us a big tell of whether television advertising is dead or not.

LIASSON: Or at least dead for the purposes of this very unusual campaign. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.