BURNING A HOLE

Posted in Election 2012 on August 6th, 2012 by Ed

I'm not sure how widespread this expression is, but when someone appears to have an urge to buy something frivolous or has more money than they know what to do with my dad always says, "What, is the money burnin' a hole in your pocket?" I was about four years old the first time he explained what this meant. It has always stuck with me as a gentle reminder to resist the temptation to spend money just to spend it. Not a bad parenting lesson (although complicated by the fact that he often spends money as though it is radioactive).

Thanks to Citizens United and the exponential growth of the cost of elections even before that decision, we are about to be subjected to a record-breaking amount of advertising in this election – just as we were in 2008, and 2004, and 2000, and etc. Candidates are getting better at raising money and they can always, always come up with new ways to spend it. One of the problems with campaign finance is that there is a threshold beyond which raising additional money doesn't really help a campaign, yet the candidates continue to fund raise regardless. In 2008 the Obama campaign raised so much money that they had to make up "I dare you" stunts – running TV ads in Arizona just to see if they could make McCain's head explode or buying 30 minutes of network airtime for a ridiculous infomercial-style narrative ad – just because, well, why not? So, nothing dissuades candidates from raising money – that is, they will never stop and declare "Eh, this is enough." – and some of them raise so much that they will spend it just to spend it, often with little or no return. When all else fails, advertise more.

We who live in the trenches and research electoral politics have made some pretty darn solid findings over the years. One of the most useful, in my view, is the rapidly diminishing returns that advertising brings. The first time you see an ad it might have some small effect on you – even something as slight as learning or remembering the candidate's name. The next two or three exposures will reinforce what you've learned. The next 80 times you see it are essentially pointless. Yes, repetition is the key to making sure that the greatest number of different people see the ad, but TV/radio/web ads also have a tendency to reach the same viewers over and over again. Living in a swing state in 2008 (Indiana), I can soberly estimate that I saw most of the Obama campaign's Midwest ads several hundred times each. I'm not even kidding. There were individual commercial breaks in which the same ad would play five or six times. And this went on for months.

Post Citizens United, the doors have opened for anyone with a checkbook to air campaign advertising. Many of us are justifiably disgusted with that Supreme Court decision, yet it's worth asking what all of these additional hundreds of millions of Koch-and-friends dollars are really going to buy; they're going to buy more advertising. And as 2008 proved, presidential campaigns have already approached or even exceeded the point of complete saturation. The only thing to do is to saturate the airwaves with even more commercials that will have little to no impact on viewers and engage in even more microtargeting – such as the Obama campaign's use of in-game advertising in multiplayer video games to reach young males or Google's newly announced ability to target web advertising to specific congressional districts.

If a man walks into a store with money that is burning a hole in his pocket, the salespeople surely will find a way to relieve him of it. Advertising professionals and the political media (which relies on election season like regular networks look forward to the Super Bowl) are similarly prepared to relieve campaigns, plutocrats, interest groups, and other relevant parties of their money knowing well that the mentality governing modern elections is, "Do everything, and do lots of it" and no one will ask too many questions about what all that money really bought.