Experts on Camera

Dr. Danilo Yanich: Unpacking political advertisements

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As Election Day draws near (and with early voting already underway), political advertisements are inescapable.

On Wednesday, November 2, 2022, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Danilo Yanich, a professor of urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware. He discussed what voters should know about political ads as they make decisions about how to vote, and he offered details on such topics as: research on how much political advertising people see on local television, social media, and elsewhere; data on how much money is spent on these ads, and by whom; how political advertising is regulated differently from other types of advertising, and how these regulatory differences affect what the public sees.

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DANILO YANICH: My name is Danilo Yanich. I’m a professor at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware. And I study the relationship among media and citizenship and public policy. What I really want to know is how people know what they know about the world around them in public places.


Interview with SciLine

How much political advertising do Americans see? How does this break down by medium: local television, social media, billboards, etc?


DANILO YANICH: Americans are exposed to a lot of political advertising as anybody would know when they’re watching television or even on the Internet. In 2022 AdImpact, a research firm is looking at probably the spending of about $9.7 billion over the course of the 2022 campaign. About half of that will go to broadcast, and most of that will go to local television news because that is where most of the broadcasting money goes. I can tell you from my own research from my book that in the 2016 election, that for the political ads, folks in the 10 markets in which I was looking were seeing 3,200 ads per day across the 10 markets. I’ve been seeing 3,200 ads per day. And two-thirds of the ads—and two-thirds of the ad money—were directed at the down-ballot races—that is not the presidential.

Who is spending money on these ads, and are there differences in spending between the major political parties?


DANILO YANICH: The major spenders for political ads are political candidates. That’s where the most money comes from. It’s also spent by political action committees or what they’ll say is interest groups. The difference between Republicans and Democrats depends on the race. For example, now, in Pennsylvania over these last few weeks, there has been a huge spending on the Republican side in support of Mehmet Oz as against John Fetterman. And so, it depends on the race. But in general, they’re spending about the same.

Is political advertising regulated differently from commercial advertising?


DANILO YANICH: Political advertising is regulated differently in the sense you can say almost anything. You can say anything in a political advertisement that you couldn’t say in regular commercial advertising. You couldn’t say something that’s objectively not true, but that’s not the case for political advertising. Its purpose is not to inform. Its purpose is to persuade. And so, you can say your version of reality. And that’s perfectly within the rules. It’s not somehow that they are skirting the rules. That’s perfectly within the rules. And so, it’s a different form of advertising for sure—number 1. Number 2—is that it is eligible for what’s called the lowest unit rate.

Who or what determines which ads the public ultimately sees on TV?


DANILO YANICH: The people who determine what the people see—what the public sees in terms of political advertising—are the people who produce the political advertisements. The local stations—that’s where most of it is—the local stations have nothing to say about what that looks like. Like I say, what you have is you’ll broadcast a political ad from one candidate who says that the Earth is round, and you can broadcast a political ad from another candidate who says the Earth is flat. And so, that’s the decision—in terms of the political candidates. There’s no editing of content there.

Are political ads more often positive or negative?


DANILO YANICH: Political ads are more positive early in the campaign. And they are also what you get—they’re more positive early in the campaign. As you move closer to the election, they become more negative. And what you also see is that negative aspect of political campaigns then is carried by PACs and interest groups rather than candidates. So, if I were to say something bad about my opponent, oftentimes that’s by some political action committee rather than the candidate coming up and saying something negative about an opponent. And so, negative ads rise as you get closer. One of the reasons for that—I mean, it’s just sound strategy—is that it’s difficult toward the end of a campaign for the target of a negative political ad to undo whatever the impression is left by the negative political ad. There’s not time to do that. It’s a timing issue. And negative ads have some effect. And all political ads’ effects are short-lived. That’s why you see them a zillion times, but they’re short-lived. What one political consultant wanted in terms of putting many political ads out was to make sure that the voter had that image in their mind when they went to push the button. So, they do have an effect. Particularly now as you have races that are decided by 10ths of percentage points.

What has changed in recent years regarding how people think about local politics versus national politics?


DANILO YANICH: The things that have changed, I think, over recent years, is the nationalization of politics and what that means for journalism. The nationalization of politics is a view of the effect of a local election on what it means to what Frances Lee called insecure majorities, nationally—that the majority is that control political institutions, particularly the Congress—and the White House—but particularly there—that those are insecure and they move back and forth across the political parties. And so, that a Senate race, for example—and you’ll see that in the messaging—a Senate race or even a House race is not seen primarily within the context of what happens in the local place. It’s seen primarily in the context of who controls the Congress. And so, that’s the nationalization of politics. Well, as a result, I’ll look at it that way. You’ve had then the nationalization of journalism. That the stories about the election, the stories about the campaign, take that same theme. It’s not with what effect theremight be at the local place. It’s again, the story reinforces that political ad that says, this is important for the calculus of who controls political institutions. And so, the issue of looking at local and what it means for local is essentially given up on. You just don’t look at it that way.