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).
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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.
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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.

28 thoughts on “BURNING A HOLE”

  • There's something fundamentally modern-day-American about this trend. People have noted (rightly) that when sellers push quantity over quality, it can only be because they could not possibly sell what they're selling on the basis of its quality, which is godawful.

    But modern-day-America has proven that if you really, really commit to quantity–if you see it not as a device to disguise poor quality, but as a desirable thing in and of itself, then the American people *will* buy it. All-you-can-eat buffets are not places where we go for quality (duh), but where we can eat *so much* that the overload our body experiences of salts, starches, and sugars is as intense as if we'd eaten a genuinely well-cooked meal made of quality ingredients. Bliss is bliss, and enough quantity will produce it.

    It really does explain our attitude towards–well, just about every way we invite the world into our lives. More, louder, brighter, shinier–how many things now come in a flavor that requires the word "burst"?

    So advertising becomes its own justification–"look how much money we spent–clearly we know what we're doing–seriously, check us out–we're here, and we're never going away–accept us as an inevitability!" And then the news of the campaign will about–what else? The amount of ads, and the amount spent on ads. Because what the hell else are they going to report on, with these two candidates? The *issues*?

    So instead, they're gonna drown us in provocation, in repetitious, sense-overloading, wit-dulling stimulation–why not? it'll produce the same rush of happy-making-biochemicals as actually caring. Americans would rather *feel* than *think*–we'd rather *believe* than *know*. So why shouldn't the campaigners target that lizard brain of ours?

    This is a crap election. Low, low quality. But with enough quantity, we can be just as emotionally invested as we'd be if we actually had meaningful choices about issues we understood.

  • My concern is that while the Presidential race may have reached the point of diminishing returns before the CU money shows up (and an incumbent President is a bad target for a wave of ideological negative advertising – people have largely made up their minds about him, one way or another), there are plenty of down-ticket races where a couple million thrown around could really change the outcome of the race. Multiply that times several dozen congressional seats and state assembly seats and you've got yourself a nice bought-and-paid-for colelction of political offices. Not to mention things like ballot propositions (we've been dealing with zillionaires and the Chamber of Commerce trying to buy ballot propositions with unlimited funds for the last couple of decades here in CA – it really is dispiriting).

    I've also heard that there's another hard limit on campaign spending – the finite number of ad slots on television networks. It's a little different now with our thousand-channel cable packages, but I remember hearing that well-funded campaigns would sometimes run out of ad slots to buy before they ran out of money, or some third-party would try to run a couple of ads late in the cycle with the money they shook out of their piggy banks, but they couldn't because all the time was booked up months ago.

    The previous paragraph also explains why the big networks love covering the horse-race aspects of campaigns, and can't get enough of putting campaign managers and consultants on as "expert" commentators. Every four years is a windfall for the big networks, and you can really see it in their coverage.

  • and yet, even with that tsunami of advertising, there will STILL be undecided voters who don't make up their mind until they're in the voting booth.

  • Despite the swollen ranks of pundits and consultants who try to stick a straw in all of this, it is the mass media that benefits the most. Can they even survive without their biannual feast of campaign advertising? I think that has to distort the way the news treats politics and political races.

  • As annoying as advertisements are, the problem with campaign contributions is not primarily how pointless what the candidate is buying with the money is, but that the candidate was first bought with it.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Money spent on political ads during prime-time on the networks will reach an older, more conservative, audience.

    Money spent on ads on cable channels, will try to reach a younger audience – the same for money spent on internet ads.

    But more and more people, with DVR's, and who watch TV shows on their computers, skip over those ads.

    And I laugh every time I see an ad for a Conservative politician on one of my favorite Liberal sites the internet. Sometimes I click on it, just to cost them some money.

    And as for the vaunted "Independents," and/or "Undecideds" here's what I think they are:
    Either lazy, stupid, or ignorant people, who, having had it drummed in their heads that voting is a civic reponsibility for a citizen, feel oblitated to go and vote every 4 years in November.
    But, knowing jack-sh*t about who's running and what they stand for, go and ask some relative, friend, co-worker, or member of their church – and then vote according to what they're told.
    And too often, that person they're depending on, is also a lazy, stupid, or ignorant feckin' moron – just one who turns on talk radio when in their car, or watch FOX News, because it's "The only news channel that tells the truth."

    We'd be better served as a nation if we had IQ and current events tests before people were allowed to vote.

    But that will never happen – nor should it.

    Maybe we need ads that tell people that if they don't know what the issues are, to stay home voluntarily, and not vote – and that their HS Civic's and History teachers will not only understand that, but probably encourage it.
    Ignorance may very well be bliss – until you decide to share your ignorance by voting.
    The result is rarely bilssful.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Also too – I forgot to mention that there actually ARE some genuine "Independent's," who vote on positions and politicians only after careful examination.
    But I think those people are few, and far between.

    And in today's world, being "Undecided" takes some effort.
    Too often, being stupid and ignorant probably takes more work than being highly informed.

    Well, that's this @$$holes $0.02's worth.

  • I live in a state that is in play. TV ads are at saturation levels already, in fact there was a local article on the windfall to local TV stations.

    I spent a week in a state that was not in play last month and saw no political ads whatsoever.

    Clearly the national media would like to get in on this action. That is why you see this endless point/counterpoint arguing by talking heads.
    Just my two cents.

  • I've worked nights for a long time, so I'm spared much of the onslaught, what little I do see, well this is the time the mute button gets some excercise . There is very little to learn about the candidates on these ads, I assume at the best they're going to dissemble, the newspapers used to be somewhat helpful, but are now mirroring the ideological bent of their corporate masters, and too expensive for working class types anyway. Easy t find pages with an axe to grind, I try to look at the occaisional conservative page in an attempt to gain perspective, but they range from "Needs more meds" to "Candidates for the enchanted kingdom".
    Question, how do contemporary Democrats compare to 60s liberals, for example, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, who, BTW, were not the most liberal Democrats then?

  • Most "independents" I know are just Republicans who for some reason don't want to admit it.

    "I don't belong to any party. I vote for the most qualified candidate (who just so happens to always always always be the Republican)".

  • Ha, since Nixon's "Southern strategy", the GOP has acquired a lot of the quirks that were once the characteristics of southern Democrats, so we now have voters who 'd "vote for a yaller dawg, if it was a Republican".

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Here in DC, the country's a-hole, were TV covers mostly Democratic voters, we still get the deluge of lies that in play states are get. Since Obama and Romney are identical twins, the whole charade reminds one of totalitarian regimes. Namely, TV is a lie supplier 24/7.

    They but influence? I thought they bought it all way back. Now they, i.e. political pedophiles, try to buy the toddlers and babies

  • A couple of points implied here, that interest me:

    1. Not only is that saturation of limited effect, it's of limited audience: those watching live television. My sense is that increasingly, the *actual* audience (those who don't skip over the ads on their DVR's) are likely to be older, in which case I'm guessing they're far less persuadable.

    2. Going forward, where do campaigns go to "get" the electorate? With ad-blocking software, DVR's, streaming television, etc., it's going to be harder to find the audience. Of course, right now I've been seeing Obama ads on Youtube and the like, but there's a very real risk of diminishing returns and/or reactions that could *hurt* the candidate: "What, fucking unskippable 30 second ad on that 25 second cat video I wanted to watch? Fuck you, Obama!"

    I'm also with c u n d gulag: I would love to see some ads encouraging "undecided" voters to either get informed or stay home. In fact, a few parody ads which make fun of the idiotic ways candidates try to appear persuasive (shaking hands, smiling, all warm fuzzies and pat sayings) would be great–and probably effective.

  • I'm hoping Ed writes a piece someday about the myth of the "Independent Voter".

    The usual notion of the electorate is that it's broken into thirds – one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and in the middle is one-third who are "independent". This makes campaign strategy clear – you lock down your base early, and then you move to the middle to court those swinging moderate in-the-middle voters (whose votes are worth twice what a base voter's vote is worth – every indie voter you pick up also takes one away from your opponent). This is why campaigns are such moderate mush, and why the base is always getting thrown under the bus (at least by Democratic candidates) – what are base voters going to do, vote for the other guy? Vote third party? Not likely.

    Except that is all bullshit. The vast majority of "independent" voters are actually very reliable votes for one party or another – they just like calling themselves independent because they like to think of themselves as free-thinkers who aren't beholden to some party line, man. Lots of my liberalish friends do this – they whine a lot about the Democrats, bemoan their lack of real options, and make a big show about how irritated they are at having to compromise their principles to pull the lever with the "D" on it – but in the end they always do. They show up in surveys as "Independent" but they're nothing of the sort. The same thing occurs on the side of the spectrum (lots of milquetoasty Republicans wring their hands about how the party has gone off the rails, and make a big production number about how they wish they had better choices and threaten to vote for Libertarian this time, but still push the "R" button because deep down they love their tax cuts and hate minorities).

    There's also the issue of the way that people tend to shift between identifying with a party and identifying as independent in response to news events and overall conditions. Everyone likes associating themselves with winners and disassociating with losers, so when a President does something awesome (win the first Gulf War, kill Osama Bin Laden, wins a landslide re-election) then suddenly lots of people who were IDing as the other party sudden start describing themselves as independent, and lots of mild supporters of the party who normally call themselves independent start proudly identifying themselves as proud party members. These show up in surveys that sometimes get breathless headlines, but they have almost no real-world effect – it's just people shutting between different levels of pride in their party, not actual changes in voting behavior.

    Once you understand all this, you see that electoral strategy is about firing up your base, getting your weakly-identifying voters fired up to come out and vote for you, and trying to dissuade the weakly-identifying opposing voters from voting – which means lots of red meat and negative campaigning, and that's the opposite of the traditional strategy of "moderation in everything to appeal to the sensible center". I first noticed this in 2004, when it seemed insane to me that Karl Rove was running a bloody negative campaign against John Kerry in an evenly-matched electorate – but he ended up winning even with an unpopular clunker like W, which showed that 1) it's hard to lose a presidential re-election and 2) turning out your base is where it's at when it comes to presidential elections, because there is NO SUCH THING as a big moderate independent center, no matter how much the hand-wringing editorial pages of our nations dying newspapers like to imagine there is.

    Fortunately, it seems the Obama 2012 campaign has learned this message, and not a moment too soon.

    If the vast majority of "independent" voters are weakly-identifying party ideologues, what does that make the rest of them? I think they break into three (small) groups. There are people who have issue views that are genuinely orthagonal to the usual D-R spectrum (I believe in decriminalizing pot and banning abortions, or maybe I'm a gun nut who wants Canada-style universal health care – who do I vote for?), there are those rare people who do it like you were taught in Civics class and sit down and read each party's platform with an open mind and watch the debates and then decide who'd make the better president, and then there are "low-information voters" (i.e. morons) who make their decision based on which scary ad they saw last or how many yard signs they saw on the way to the polling place or whatever (they're why the last week or two of a campaign has ads that are so awful – everyone with an IQ above 80 has long ago made up their mind, so the ads are aimed at people who are caveman-dumb and have the attention span of gnats).

  • Sorry Middle Seaman, but I don't buy the "Obama and Romney are identical twins" meme.

    Remember "Gush and Bore" from the 2000 election? Do you really think that a Gore administration would have been the same from 2001-2008?

  • Clearly I'm not as well versed as is Ed in the current research on the effectiveness of ads, but I definitely recall my first time being exposed to that general finding (i.e., that ads work, just not that much) in my own grad school days. I somewhat recall a journalistic reference to an analogous finding about the ground game (i.e., voter mobilization, GOTV, et al.) several years later, but to my knowledge that's not been treated as thoroughly in the scholarship.

    Anyway, this is just to say I'm waiting for the Moneyball moment when a national campaign decides to run a perfectly effective campaign with a utility-maximizing amount of air and ground resources, despite being outspent by the other side several times over, and wins. Might be waiting a while; the eventual win didn't ever happen in Moneyball, after all….

  • I just have to say that I read the title of this post as "Burning A-Hole," and I'm not sure that would have been less apt.

  • What FMguru said. Diminishing returns definitely set in at the presidential level, with paid advertising augmented by the free stuff on the news. Same is more or less true for the Senate. But House races, and even more so state leg races, get essentially no coverage in most places these days, even by local news.

    And we've learned that right-wing control of state legislatures and at least one house of Congress can, at the very least, completely stifle any efforts by Democrats to enact any kind of progressive agenda. Having accomplished that, the coast is clear for the right-wing agenda to take over, helped by the ratchet effect – once certain policy goals (low marginal tax rates, restrictions on reproductive choice, etc) are in law, it's next to impossible to remove them.

    Thanks to money, they're winning. And the fact that their money advantage is of limited use at the presidential level, while true, is more or less irrelevant.

  • @ Major Kong: Gore would of caught Osama Bin Laden and had the government stay in the black. Other than that, not much of a difference.

  • anotherbozo says:

    @Sluggo: I doubt that Gore would have mired us in the second Iraq war either. Hardly a footnote.

    @Tim H: "Question, how do contemporary Democrats compare to 60s liberals, for example, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, who, BTW, were not the most liberal Democrats then?"

    Contemporary Democrats are Republicans in everything but name. McGovern would have been viewed as a Bernie Sanders type, i.e., a "radical" leftie; Nixon—hell, even Reagan—would have been far, far too liberal for any branch of what is considered the Republican Party today; both could easily pass for Democrats. I'm not kidding.

    I'm happy Ed affirmed that there's a law of diminishing returns on political ads, but the Regressive Party probably knows that ads have greatest impact when candidates are least known, in congressional and state elections. Big bucks there could really hurt.

    Obama should be campaigning hard, not just on his own re-election, but in pulling more Dems into Congress. What I'm afraid will happen, even if he ekes out a victory for a second term, is that he'll have two Republican-controlled houses of congress to deal with and have to veto everything that crosses his desk or be content to become the defacto plutocrat, the default Mitt.

    Again this election seems to be a story of defensiveness among the Dems. Obama should use the pulpit to spell out WHY Congress has done nothing, WHY the stalemate exists.

    "The best lack all conviction…" Or at least act as though they lack it.

  • FMguru, the way you describe the Republicans is accurate now, but it wasn't always. It was a moderate party, talking more about responsibly spending tax money than tax cuts. The assimilation of turncoat southern Democrats and Reagans one-upping Carters conservatism had a lot to do with what the party's become, they tried to ride the right-wingnuts, and now they're being ridden.

  • anotherbozo, that's kind of what I thought, when I hear Democrats called "Liberal", I wonder "Are they seeing something, or hallucinating?". I fear we'll have a long, ugly time until the current crop of teepers and randroids become old, ignorable cranks, unless they drive us into a really spectacular ditch.

  • mel in oregon says:

    well saying if gore had won, the country would have been better off than the evil & incompetentcy of the bush regime goes without saying. but just because obama is the lesser of the evils doesn't mean a lot of progressives are over joyed with him. he has broken almost every promise he made when campaigning four years ago. he has immelt, ceo of gen electric who outsourced thousands of jobs to china as his chairman on the council on jobs. he selected morgan stanley member of the board of directors as choice on the budget deficit committee. he put social security & medicare on the table when discussing the budget with boehner. his whole cabinet is made up of wallstreet executives. so pardon me if i am not impressed with obama as president.

  • I can't wait until October, when we start seeing the Super PAC ads which tell us that Obama fucked goats with baby boys while practicing Sharia law. Boy, will THAT be fun!

  • Money buys drones. Drones keep the hate boiling and gin up voters to turn out in local elections. Local and statewide elections cripple national policy.

    "AFP activists were outfitted with iPad-like tablet devices that featured artfully phrased survey questions respondents could answer on the tablet's touch screen. AFP foot soldiers took these tablets with them to households identified by the kind of micro-targeting strategies used by Web advertisers. (For more detail on these strategies, see our July report, Religious Right's Ralph Reed Field-Tests Plan to Defeat Obama.) Using the tablet's GPS feature, activists are directed to particular homes in a given neighborhood, based on the micro-targeted voter database that AFP has assembled.

    Hilgemann said that Americans For Prosperity activists knocked on 75,000 doors and made 50,000 calls in the days leading up to the recall election."


  • whatever else can be said, Obama is definitely what used to be called a Democrat. or left of center, for that matter.

    that kind of labeling amazes me. who are these people trying to fool? Obama is a Reagan lover and therefore not a liberal in any way shape or form

    Obama is such a traitor to left of center thinking. i look at people who say Obama is better than Rmoney like "how little they know". Obama is just Bush 3. Boldly going where no Republican has gone before, to paraphrase Star Trek.

    Evil indeed, just not as evil as Rmoney. lol such a wonderful choice given to us by the Elites.

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