February, 2013
Volume 23, Issue 1

A First Look at Political Advertising in the 2012 Campaign

Erika Franklin Fowler, Wesleyan University
Michael M. Franz, Bowdoin College
Travis N. Ridout, Washington State University

Now that President Obama has been inaugurated as president for a second term, it is a good time to reflect on the 2012 election campaigns, and specifically, the role of political advertising. As co-directors of the Wesleyan Media Project, we assembled a massive dataset that includes tracking information (when and where each political ad aired in 2012) from Kantar Media/CMAG and information on the content of these ads from our own coding. In taking a first glance at those data, we found that there are many things worth discussing, and we picked a few to highlight.

1) In addition to being plentiful, especially for those residing in a battleground market, advertising in 2012 was negative and downright depressing. Looking just at advertising in the presidential general election, we find that 64 percent of ads were attack ads – ones that only mentioned an opponent. A mere 14 percent were positive – solely mentioning the sponsor – while the remainder of the ads were contrast (comparative) ads. The dominant emotion was anger, with fully 74 percent of ad airings making some appeal to anger. Our coders described the music in 52 percent of the ads as ominous or tense, while 34 percent of ads featured sorrowful or sad music. Only 23 percent of ads used uplifting music.

2) Romney and Obama targeted somewhat different audiences. Romney focused his advertising during news programs. Forty-five percent of Romney campaign ads aired during local news broadcasts, compared to 32 percent for the Obama campaign. An additional 13 percent of Romney ads aired during news interview programs, while 11 percent of Obama spots aired during this program genre. The Obama campaign preferred talk shows, with 18 percent of their ad airings taking place during talk shows, compared to 13 percent of Romney campaign ads. The Obama campaign also liked placing ads on reality programs (7 percent of his spots aired during such programs, compared to 3 percent for Romney). Moreover, the Obama campaign spread its ad airings around to more national cable networks, airing almost 8700 spots on 31 different cable networks. These ranged from Hallmark and MTV2 to Fox News and ESPN. By contrast, the Romney campaign aired no national cable advertising, though the Republican National Committee ran a few cable ads, mostly on cable news networks. Unfortunately, our data encompass only national cable airings, not local cable television.

3) Outside groups played an important and historic role in federal races, especially on the Republican side. Republican interest groups largely propped up Mitt Romney (sponsoring more than half of all pro-Romney ads in the general election), though their dollars did not quite make up for the Obama campaign's efficiency in taking advantage of the lowest unit rate given only to candidates. In U.S. House and Senate races, pro-GOP interest groups also outspent pro-Democratic interest groups by roughly 44 percent. Thanks in large part to the Center for Responsive Politics' hard work in categorizing interest group disclosure, we are able to report that 428,341 "dark money" ads (those from sponsors like 501c4 nonprofits who do not disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission) aired at an estimated cost of $321.5M. Moreover, 241,697 ads aired (at an estimated cost of $208M) from groups that only partially disclose their donors. In contrast, 237,511 ads (at an estimated cost of $207M) aired from groups that have full disclosure requirements (such as Super PACs, who report donor information). All of these figures encompass all advertising aired in federal races in the two-year election cycle. One more caveat: The coding of ad sponsors can be tricky as some groups have multiple committees (some that disclose and some that do not), and thus linking the ad to the correct sponsor type is an ongoing project for us.

4) Campaigns have embraced digital communication – at least to some extent. Only 1 percent of ad airings provided a mailing address, while 60 percent mentioned a website address. That said, we found no ads that provided a YouTube address or a Twitter handle, probably because such locations were more easily accessed from the campaign's website.

5) Men's voices predominated. Of the ads that featured a voiceover, 62 percent of the time the voice was a man's. A woman's voice was featured 32 percent of the time, and both a man and woman did voiceovers in the remaining 7 percent of ads.

These points represent just the beginning of our analysis. The data can tell us a lot more about the content and targeting of ads in 2012, and one important project for us moving forward is assessing the relationship between different ad types and their effects on voters. The election may have ended and the ads may have largely stopped, but for us the work continues. If you are interested in following more of our work, please sign up for email alerts here or follow us on Twitter here.

The Project's 2012 ad tracking was made possible through the generous financial support of the Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Wesleyan University.