October 2008 - ERA Section: Gov’t Affairs

The Politics of DRTV: Ask not what your infomercial can do for you,
ask what it can do for your country.

By Tomiyo Turner

Only 60 years ago, candidates’ political platforms were articulated mostly in long speeches. Just 40 years ago, the majority of political advertisements were five minutes in length. Despite what is arguably an increasingly complex political system, voters are drawing heavily on 15- to 30-second television advertisements to make their decisions in November. This is creating an information gap that keeps many potential swing voters at home, underutilizes the potential of political advertising and prevents more informed political debate.

But things should, and might, be changing soon. Sen. Barack Obama has aired the first long-form ad of this Presidential campaign. Although the Obama campaign has been clear that they are only trying out this method, both candidates should invest in a solid long-form strategy to supplement other advertising. Each type of advertisement has the potential to reach different types of voters and therefore, maximize support.

However, long-form advertising has special potential in the political arena. In political advertising, it is important to be especially cost-effective and to seek out a specific audience. By using long-form advertising that is targeted to address the particular concerns of a more regional audience, candidates may be able to garner votes in nearly every constituency without spending nearly as much as they would using more traditional media buys. Political long-form advertisements would be less expensive to produce than product-based advertisements, because they can use pre-recorded footage from campaign events.

Another major benefit of long-form advertising is the special ability to target first-time or infrequent voters. A study conducted by the American National Election Studies group at Stanford and the University of Michigan demonstrated that in 2004, 60 percent of voters felt the issues were too complex to understand. Perceived lack of information is one of the greatest barriers to voter participation, and if candidates can make a persuasive case that supplies basic information about the issues, they might more successfully mobilize their supporters.

Further, long-form advertisements reach an especially valuable audience. Views of long-form advertisements are more likely to be female and are more educated than average.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 60 percent of undecided likely voters in October of 2004, were female. Targeting women even late in the election may provide a significant change close to the election.

Long-form ads might also be able to capitalize on the decision-making process that voters actually use. Samuel Popkin, a political scientist influential in the development of rational choice theory, says that voters economize on information and resolve uncertainty by looking to experts. By utilizing commentary from experts in issue areas, candidates may be able to convince voters that their policy positions are the best.

Spot advertisements, by contrast, do not have this type of influence. Only extremely well-known individuals will be able to create this effect in a short form. A long-form format gives time to develop the credibility and explain the credentials of a less-known expert.

The long-form advertisement meets two major needs in our political system: It could enliven the political debate and raise the level of political awareness.

Tomiyo Turner works in ERA’s government affairs department. She can be reached at (703) 908-1022, or via e-mail at [email protected].

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