Can Ads That Use Trump Against Himself Destroy His Re-Election Bid? - Rolling Stone
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Can Ads That Use Trump Against Himself Destroy His Re-Election Bid?

A new ad that attempts to capitalize on President’s Trump’s laissez-faire handling of the coronavirus crisis sends a strong message but evidence shows ads are only marginally effective

Can Political Ads That Use Trump Against Himself Destroy His Re-Election Bid?

American Bridge 21st Century Political Ad

PoliticalAd/Screencap

A new ad that attempts to capitalize on President’s Trump’s laissez-faire handling of the coronavirus crisis by using his own words against him seems to be a sure-fire strategy, but will it prove effective?

The digital ad artfully pulls together clips of the president lying about the state of the crisis by saying things like, “We have it under control,” and calling it the Democrats’ “new hoax.” The ad simultaneously shows just how wrongheaded the president was by using a graphic on the right side of the screen that shows the number of new coronavirus cases steadily rising.

According to the Washington Post, the new ad campaign, which is funded by the Democratic-aligned super PAC American Bridge, will target states where Democrats thought they’d have success in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — but where Trump instead prevailed.

But will it work? A January report in the Wall Street Journal, which looked at the effectiveness of all types of political advertising, found that there is “no evidence that online political ads are any more powerful than old-fashioned TV spots,” while adding that “there are good reasons to think that all online ads, not just the political ones, have little impact.”

The WSJ report goes on to argue that voters’ first reaction is to reject a message that “challenges” their view and that persuasion usually comes with context and from a source that they “perceive as competent and trustworthy.”

Advertising alone appeared to give Mike Bloomberg a fighting chance, even with his late entry into the primary process. Using his millions, the former mayor of New York City flooded the airwaves in key states and used targeted digital ads that boosted his polling numbers — and appeared to turn him into a presidential contender. But the Bloomberg portrayed in these ads quickly gave way to reality when then-candidate Elizabeth Warren focused on Bloomberg’s past controversial policies and personal behavior to kill his high office hopes. 

In the coming 2020 general election, we have two well-known national personalities pitted against each other, many voters’ impressions of the candidates are already baked in, meaning advertising may not make a significant difference with voters.

And maybe, more importantly, ads like these won’t be able to break through the glut of advertising from campaigns and super PACs, actual political news and disinformation that floods social media platforms.

The money being spent on political advertising does signal that some think there is an advantage to be had. But take Joe Biden’s primary campaign as an example: at one point before voting began, the campaign was basically broke, with little money for ads — and now he’s raking in primary victories. At the same time, though, billionaire candidate Tom Steyer’s campaign spent millions on political advertising and fizzled. One has to wonder if it is fear of not being in the ad game that is driving campaigns to spend while ignoring the facts at hand — political ads are minimally effective.

One reason that we will likely see record-breaking ad spending for this coming election is because of the lessons learned during the 2016 campaign — political ads and fake news can be weaponized and used as a voter suppression tool.

During the 2016 election season, the Trump campaign — with help from companies such as Cambridge Analytica — used data to target voters in certain states where they calculated the presidential race might be close. Instead of using ads and fake news that promoted the positive aspects that a president Trump may bring to the office, however, they concentrated their efforts on depressing possible Hillary Clinton supporters, thus evening the playing field on election day. And it worked.

So like with this ad — which will target voters in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the strategy is more than likely directed at voters who were once Obama supporters and then voted for Trump in 2016. Or it’s aimed at discouraging those who voted for Trump last time around but are frustrated by his job performance and ripe for the kind of suppression that worked during the last election cycle against Clinton.

Either way, targeted digital and terrestrial political advertising are not going away — even without a clear picture of their effectiveness.

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