Tuesday, November 6, 2012

US Election Costs $50 Per Vote –Money Well Spent?

The presidential election of 2012 may not be remembered for who won or lost, or the issues, or the storm that wrecked the east coast: There’s a good chance it will be remembered by how much it cost.

By some estimates, over $6 billion (with a ‘B’) has been spent collectively on the various election races nationwide, with something close to a billion being spent on the presidential election alone. With at least 120 million Americans expected to go to the ballot, that’s a staggering $50 per vote. This compares with under $20 per vote in 2000.

This is unquestionably great news if you’re a TV station owner, especially if you’re Ohioan, but of dubious merit for just about everyone else and for democracy at large. But let’s ignore the Big Question about the wisdom of mixing all that money in a democratic election process. I have a more fundamental question: Is this money well spent? Said another way, can you buy an election?

There’s no question that advertising is persuasive to some degree, but can it influence voting? Not so much. Stephen Dunbar at Freaknomics  finds that campaigns managers and insiders from all political parties don’t see a nice linear relationship between spending and outcome, but they recognize it contributes. While researchers acknowledge that the biggest spender is also most often the winner, when all other factors are taken into account, the spending isn’t the root cause of success. To cite recent examples, Meg Whitman in California or McMahon in Connecticut each spent a considerable part of their private fortunes on loosing campaigns. So, the good news is you apparently can’t buy an election.

But wait. There has to be a reason all this money is sloshing around in politics – why are we all subjected to so many crappy TV ads unless they do something?

Advertising does a couple of things very well. First, and most obviously, advertising raises awareness. In this regard, political candidates are no different to dog food or Viagra, at least from an advertising perspective (there may be other similarities which I won’t pursue). This is why so many ‘third party’ candidates rail against the political system – they aren’t able to compete for awareness is a noisy, cluttered political environment. (Indeed, many Americans are surprised and confused to find that there’s actually four candidates on the ballot for president this year. Most voters have never heard of two of them).

The second effect of advertising is to set the agenda. The famous adage about the news business –  news organizations can’t tell us what to think, but they can tell us what to think about – is also true of advertising. This election cycle, the Democrats did a masterful job of framing the political debate, so that the focus became less about the economy and more about social, environmental and health issues. This didn't directly persuade voters to vote for any specific candidate, but it did provide evaluation criteria that favors one over the other.

Advertising can have others effects, especially for so-called ‘low involvement’ buying decisions (think breakfast cereal or washing detergent), but for most situations it’s influence is weak, indirect and fleeting.

As goes political advertising, so goes advertising everywhere.  Those we wish to influence in business may not be heavily swayed by our own advertising and self-promotion. We can make them aware of our company, we can raise issues we think are significant and warrant attention – but we will need to rely on other tools to really influence decision making.