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Political advertising has evolved with the change in technology.

As the 2020 presidential preference primary gets closer, political campaign ads have become more and more pervasive. We see them everywhere — on TV, before our YouTube video plays and on Facebook or other social media platforms. It's nearly impossible to avoid them all, particularly now that digital advertising has evolved and allows campaigns to target audiences for advertising with more accuracy than ever before.

Vox spoke with Ben Warner, an associate professor in the department of communications at MU, who studies the effects of political debates, campaign advertising and social media. He co-authored the book An Unprecedented Election: Media, Communication, and the 2016 Campaign and had some great insight to share regarding the complex world of political advertising. 

Political advertising is unproven

Warner says there is controversy among experts in the field of political advertising about whether ads are actually effective. The case for ads being ineffective is particularly strong for presidential elections, he says, because there are so many alternative ways for voters to get information about candidates and form their own opinions.

“Most people seem to agree that the further down-ballot you go, the more influential ads can be,” he says. “(It’s) where people are making decisions without a lot of information, where the media isn’t likely to cover down-ballot elections as much, especially the more local you get, and where most of what people hear about a candidate can come from a political ad.”

While there are decades of research on the impact of TV campaign ads, there is much less research on the impact of digital and social media advertising. He pointed to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s widespread advertising on TV, radio and digital ads that cost him more than $500 million.

“It was almost like he spent hundreds of millions of dollars doing a real-world political science experiment for us,” Warner says. Bloomberg’s efforts indicated the unopposed ads can buy candidates a lot of support, name recognition and enthusiasm and even positive media coverage, he says, “but then you show up to the debate, weaknesses get exposed, the tone of the media changes and it turns out that your support was a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Digital advertising advantages

Without research, there’s a lot of unknowns about how successful digital political advertising is, but Warner says there seem to be some obvious advantages because digital advertising has been “dramatically transformed” in recent years. Social media platforms and search engines have data that allows campaigns to target who will be shown their ads.  

On top of targeting audiences, in Warner’s eyes one advantage is that digital ads are often harder to spot. “The native post ads on Facebook kind of just look like one of your friends posted," he says. "They don’t look like a commercial. I don’t think that our brains are as well trained to tune them out yet, or at least mine isn’t."

Also, digital ads are not held to the same standards of providing accurate information. “I feel like there’s more opportunity to be — a nice way of saying it is there’s more opportunity to be crafty, maybe a not-so-nice way of saying it is there’s more opportunity to be deceitful.”

But again, he reiterates that at the level of presidential elections there is so much other information for voters to consume about the candidates.

“One of the things that really blocks major ad effects is that most people hear a ton about the candidates on the news and in other media, hear a ton about the candidates from their personal networks, tune in to watch a debate and can form their own opinions,” Warner says.

The 2020 race

Warner says it’s too soon to say exactly how advertising has impacted and will continue to impact the race in 2020. Usually our TV is filled with political ads in an election year, Warner says. “Every time we watch Hulu or YouTube, are all of these ads going to infiltrate our lives just like they they used to on TV before we could hop online and skip the commercials?”

He said he expected the Bloomberg campaign, which had been advertising heavily for weeks in some states other candidates had not started advertising in, was a preview for what the general election would look like.

“If you ask people, ‘Hey have you seen an ad for Bloomberg?’ and they say, ‘Yes,’ it’s probably like, ‘Well, guess what. In a few months, that’s how you’re going to feel about Trump and whoever the Democrat is.’”

In the past week, several Democratic candidates who were once considered strong contenders for the nomination have exited the race, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bloomberg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Only Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard remain in the race.

Think you can identify the candidates and former candidates who remained in the race long enough to win delegates based just on excepts from their campaign video advertisements? We put together a quiz to test your knowledge.

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