New Study: Do Unknown Political Committee Ads Work?

By Jim Kane


With the primary now concluded, most voters are finding their mailboxes far less full and their favorite TV shows containing fewer political commercials.

This, unfortunately, is only a temporary respite in what will soon become a monstrous storm of political ads as we approach November.

Many of these ads will be sponsored by unknown and credible sounding entities with names like “Americans for a Better and Greater America.”  These ambiguous organizations have long been used as attack vehicles on candidates to obscure their actual sponsorship. This attack ad practice has been accelerated by a spate of Supreme Court rulings (see Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010) that now allow private interests to donate largely unregulated donations to electioneering committees.

Political scientists have long known that credibility and legitimacy of an ad contributes significantly to its persuasiveness. Candidate sponsored ads are mostly seen as “biased” by many voters and, consequently, these attitudes can contaminate the ads credibility and its ability to persuade the voter. Or as mother use to say “take it with a grain of salt.”

On the other hand, ads sponsored by known organizations (i.e. NRA), their persuasiveness will largely depend on how the voter views (positively or negatively) the organization. Obviously, if you are an advocate of gun control you are appreciably less likely support a NRA endorsed candidate.

But little is known on how voters are affected by unknown and ambiguous groups. Some political observers believe that voters tend to discount ads sponsored by unknown groups since they lack any identified legitimacy or credibility.  In a recently published article in the academic journal Political Behavior (Vol. 34, no.3, pp. 561-584, September, 2012), three political scientists (Weber, Dunaway and Johnson) have addressed this subject with some surprising results.

The Survey

Using an experimental design, 383 adults and college students were divided into three groups and shown an identical political TV ad with the exception of the sponsoring organization. One group viewed the ad sponsored by a candidate, the second shown the ad sponsored by a known organization (in this case, the NRA) and the third group an ad sponsored by an unknown organization (Citizens for a Safer America). The ads were professionally produced and centered on the candidate’s opponent cutting federal spending to help prevent crime. Although technically classified as an attack ad it was, in my view, a tepid 4 on scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is considered positive and 10 libelous.

Each participant was given a pretest questionnaire, which included their attitudes toward particular groups including the two major parties (thermometer ratings). Participants were told they would be viewing a Web ad from a recent senate campaign between two candidates (fictional). They were given a brief overview and randomly assigned to one of the three ad groups.

Following the viewing of the experimental ad, all participants were given a posttest that asked their attitudes about the ad (including several measures of the ads persuasiveness), the credibility of the candidate and the known and unknown groups. In addition, key demographic questions including ideology and partisanship were asked.

After controlling for all demographic and political variables (OLS regression), the results confirmed the authors’ hypothesis that known groups such as the NRA, their effectiveness was based solely on whether the voter had either a positive or negative view of it. No surprise here.

But when it came to the candidate’s and unknown group’s sponsorship, the data revealed that the unknown group sponsored ad was 9% more persuasive than the ad from the candidate alone. In other words, regardless of the message voters found the unknown group more credible even though they had no idea who the group was.

What is interesting from this study is that candidates could benefit more from an ECO touting their credentials and qualifications than from the candidate’s campaign itself. In one campaign this past primary an ECO sponsored direct mail ad did exactly that, it promoted the candidate’s positive accomplishments only and never mentioned his opponent. For what it’s worth, that ECO candidate won easily.

Now some cautionary words about this study before you decide to form an ECO. Although the researchers used a very large sample of participants, they were not randomly selected and not representative of the population, which is not unusual in experimental designs. More importantly, the campaign was fictional and even though the participants were told that the ad was from a previous campaign it’s missing the authenticity of a real campaign. Consequently, it lacks what statisticians call external validity. In laymen’s terms, that means the results found in this study may not apply to an actual campaign itself.

With that caveat, the conclusions of this new research are not totally unique. Political researchers in the recent past have also concluded that outside groups, have more credibility than the candidate alone. That’s why candidates covet group endorsements such as police, firefighters and, in Democratic primaries, labor unions. What is unique here is that ambiguous groups are also more persuasive in advocating the candidate’s message than the candidate alone. From this research, I could see far more outside political committees using positive ads to support candidates’ positive messages rather than the usual attack ads that have filled our TV screens and mailboxes in the past. And that would be positive step in the right direction.

(Jim Kane teaches graduate level survey research at the University of Florida, Gainesville. A veteran Florida political strategist, Kane was the first Democratic pollster to work for the Florida Republican Party. He is a regular contributor to national and local television and

7 Responses to “New Study: Do Unknown Political Committee Ads Work?”

  1. Real Deal says:

    Rules should be revised so that these groups are better identified. They should tell you on their material who they are and what website you can view to find out who they are, who contributed, what their mission is and what other causes they have supported.

    It’s important that readers have the opportunity to assess not just the message from these groups but who is funding the efforts, why they are organized, what mission statement they embrace and what other causes they have championed.

    At that point the reader has some context to understand if the message sent to them is something they want to believe or not. Disclosure is the key to keeping such groups honest.

  2. Kevin says:

    Great heads up, Jim. I’ll look for the article on Jstor.


  3. Sam The Sham says:

    Disclosure might give the voter an idea of who these groups are but does nothing as far as keeping them honest.

  4. Not all bad says:

    Like with anything in life you make of it what you want. As Mr. Kane’s study showed, ECO’s can be very effective in touting a candidates positives. I recieved the piece from David DiPietro and Broward Citizens for a Strong Judiciary which helped me make an informed decision regarding race between Judge Ross and Mickey Rocque.

  5. Plantation Historian says:

    Rule of thumb is if a ECO is negative it is thrown away without reading. Would you hire someone if they could only tell you bad things about their competition?

  6. City Activist Robert Walsh says:

    Oh Buddy, it seems to me these poltical consulatants, pundits, lobbyist etc, that get behind certain canidates it seems its more than being inandated w/ commercials, or flyers. Its all about throwing the cheap shots. I mean do any of them play fair? I got news for some of you-you can play dirty, Robert Walsh this half a ginzo-irish harp can play dirtier. Wait and see….

  7. Real Deal says:

    I agree with Sam’s comment. Disclosure can help readers assess the credibility of groups. While it won’t guarantee that everything they say is honest, it does make it tougher for them to be totally dishonest.

    We don’t even have that yet these groups move voters to act and this is very worrisome.

    It is important that journalism which with few exceptions today are rotten to the core, corrupt, propagandist, cash seeking whores, give way for these groups to be even more successful.