Do Political Ads Elicit Marketing Fatigue?

Zach Brooke
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Key Takeaways
​​What? Marketing fatigue is very real qualitatively and quantitatively.

So what? A closer look at the intense amount of political ads shown to voters in the run-up to elections may reveal lessons about marketing fatigue useful to marketers in their own field.

Now what? Ad creatives should always be participating in experiments to negate the effects of marketing fatigue and counter the "wah-wah-wah" factor. 

​February 2, 2016

This November, America will choose its next president. If only it was that easy.

The U.S. presidential campaign process now spans well over a year, closer to two really, before votes are finally cast in the general election. Along the way, voters are exposed to a prolonged barrage of political advertisements. Industry experts estimate the combined expenditures for all 2016 presidential candidates could total $5 billion, with $4.4 billion of that money directed at TV advertising. In Iowa alone, The Des Moines Register found that voters were subjected to more than 17,000 television advertisements between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1, and more than 60,000 ads throughout the entirety of the run-up to the caucus. 

In the marketing world, this kind of onslaught would typically elicit marketing fatigue.

“[Marketing fatigue] is very real qualitatively and quantitatively. What we know is that an ad, when shown multiple times will perform worse the second time and third time and the fourth time, especially within a short period of time,” says Mitchell Weisman, founder and CEO of creative side platform developer RevJet​. “If shown too many times within a very short period of time, ads eventually can even have negative value. We’ve seen this and we can prove this.” 

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And political advertising might actually produce the same type of fatigue that Weisman is talking about, but we don’t know. Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president at Kantar Media Intelligence and contributing editor at The Cook Political Report, looked into the possibility of political ad fatigue, or tried to anyway. What she encountered was that, “well-placed analytics experts are unaware of any recent fieldwork on the potential for ad fatigue.” 

“I think it’s the kind of thing people are only just realizing is worth looking at,” she says, adding, “I wish somebody were measuring it and I think people will start looking at it. There are so many different trends and industry developments in political advertising that are converging to make this a real possibility.” Wilner notes that whatever is going on with voter response to political ads is distinct from traditional marketing campaigns. 

“This is unlike the product space. This is really unique. There’s no other advertiser in the world who would be hitting viewers at this kind of frequency within a constricted timeframe,” she says.

But Weisman sees one industry-agnostic evaluator that might explain why there isn’t a more pronounced backlash against intense political advertising. “My experience is consumers are much more forgiving of categories than they are of individual brands. You see a lot of auto insurance ads. You understand there are a lot of auto insurance companies. If you see one bombarding you with the same ad over and over again, you start to get frustrated with that brand,” Weisman says. “Everybody understands that there is an election going on, and it’s a big deal, and they expect to see a whole lot of ads. This distinction is between declining value and negative value that sets in.”

Wilner also looked at the efficiency of TV ads. She found a lack of creativity bogged down most ads, producing what she terms a “wah-wah-wah” effect (think of the off-camera adults in Peanuts cartoons). Many candidates pitched messages roughly identical to one another. But this, too, doesn’t strike Weisman as anomalous.

“The world is so focused on buying the media space. All of the analytics are focused on the media space and spending the media dollars; very little attention is focused on the creative itself,” he says. 

Wilner did, however, find ads that were well received. Ad-testing service Ace Metrix determined TV spots that told personal stories of regular people, as opposed to candidate biographies or attack ads–scored the best with panels.

Asked why that is, Wilner says, “I’m assuming it’s because this is a cycle when voters are tired of all of the trappings of traditional politics. They don’t like the traditional candidates. They don’t like traditional advertising. They are just not receptive to it the way that they have been in traditional cycles.”

It’s these stale, fatigue-inducing advertisements that marketers like Weisman hope to avoid in their brand or direct marketing campaigns. The solution, Weisman says, to ad fatigue–even of the potentially political variety–is two-fold. “All ad creatives should run on a single platform that makes it effortless to build new creatives, to deliver those creatives and to measure them all. And two: ad creatives should always be participating in experiments,” he says. “Unfortunately too many advertisers, especially when they’re in a hurry are in a spray and pray mode.”

Wilner would seem to agree, ultimately concluding that a TV ad can be effective “if it’s conceived effectively.”

“The main issue with TV ad creative for political advertising is that developments there have just lagged far behind advances that we’ve seen in placement. People are just basically being exposed to ads that look the same over and over again, every four years, to an increasingly intense degree. They really look all the same. If you squint, it could be any candidate,” she says

Of course unique marketing problems also may have unique solutions. Another possible solution to political fatigue? Elections.

Samuel Lau​, communications director at the Iowa Democratic Party agrees that Iowans were being bombarded with ads in the run-up to the caucuses. He says that Iowans—though proud of the spotlight shown on their state every four years—will benefit from a pause between the caucus and the general election. 

“I’m sure there will be a temporary pause. I don’t think you’re going to see on Feb. 2 a huge launch into a new campaign. There will be a break for people I think everyone will appreciate. … But before long, we have to get right back to it,” Lau says. ​

Author Bio:

Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer at the American Marketing Association. He can be reached at
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