Last week, Google’s “Politics, Elections and Public Sector” team unveiled a “Four Screens to Victory” infographic that highlights new trends in how Americans gather political information. The folks at Google suggest that television may be losing its primacy in the world of campaign advertising, and they hope that political campaigns will begin to shift their ad spends online.

But can these multimedia campaigns do more than just publicize a candidate or mobilize existing supporters? That is, can they actually persuade people to vote a certain way?

Political science research has always found that voting preference is largely determined by pre-existing political beliefs, and that campaign ads are really only effective with the minority of voters who are inattentive or undecided. And the same may be the case for even the most innovative online marketing strategies.

Thinking Outside the TV Box

Did you know that one-third of likely voters across the country said that they did not watch any television in the past week but that half of tablet users get news on their tablet on a daily basis? Did you know that 68 percent of voters use the Internet as their primary source for information on political candidates and issues? If you’re a regular reader of this blog, these might seem like familiar data points to you.  

In highlighting these new trends, Google seeks to promote services such as contextual advertising (where an advertisement for or against a particular ballot proposition — e.g., legalizing gay marriage — would appear next to a news article about that proposition) and mobile search engine marketing campaigns targeted to “get out the vote” activities (so that candidates’ ads appear in search results when “polling places in Omaha” is typed into into an iPhone or Android).   

According to a Nielsen Multi-Screen Media Lab Study from 2011, which Google predominantly touts on its site, “four screen ad campaigns” (i.e., those that span your TV, computer, tablet and smartphone) are 48 percent more effective in driving campaign awareness and 77 percent more effective in driving campaign engagement than television ad campaigns alone.  

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And indeed, recent research from Professor Alan Gerber at Yale University shows that even when television ads are effective, their impact on an individual’s political choices is typically fleeting, and public opinion “equilibriates” within a couple weeks.

Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth University, said in an email interview he expects that “online ad effects are similarly short-lived, particularly in the cluttered media environment of a general election campaign in a presidential year.”

With voters typically using more than 14 sources of information to help them make their candidate selection, what’s a campaign’s advertising strategist to do?  Do they stick with the time-tested but old-fashioned 30-second television spots, or ramp up their ad spend on integrated multimedia tactics like those that Google recommends? Professor Nyhan suggests that the answer to this question depends on a couple variables.

“The cost to advertise on television varies widely across states and congressional districts,” he told me. “Online advertising is going to be more appealing in places where airtime is expensive. It may also be more useful for more sophisticated and well-funded campaigns that can take advantage of its targeting and customization features (not possible in TV) and can afford to buy enough online ad space to saturate targeted voters with advertising (something that is often prohibitively expensive on TV).”

Increasing Rejection of Targeted Political Ads

Complicating Google’s sales pitch, a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (including Joseph Turow, one of my former professors) recently released a report that finds that 86 percent of Americans dislike “political advertising tailored to your interests.”  The report, boldly titled, “Americans Roundly Reject Tailored Political Advertising,” concludes not only that tailored political ads are disliked (after all, who claims to like ads of any sort?), but that they may even backfire and depress turnout if voters catch on to these tactics.  

Per the report, “64 percent of Americans say their likelihood of voting for a candidate they support would decrease… if they learn a candidate’s campaign organization buys information about their online activities and their neighbor’s online activities — and then sends them different political messages it thinks will appeal to them.”  

Armed with the treasure trove of demographic and psychographic data that the web provides, this type of microtargeting is precisely the sort of tactic that campaigns are pursuing in 2012.  That said, it’s unlikely that this new type of advertising, which voters profess to hate, will realistically decrease individual turnout in November.  

Nor is it likely to get the online public to steer clear of tailored political ads.  As Emil Protalinksi wrote on CNET recently of Facebook, (one of the most egregious offenders of tailored political ads): “Facebook is using targeted advertising, Facebook users don’t like targeted advertising, and Facebook users know about the targeted advertising. Nevertheless, Facebook users keep using Facebook. Surprised? Yeah, me neither.”

Even if it these marketing tactics don’t change our voting or media consumption behaviors in the short run, the Penn researchers ominously conclude that “the divide we found between the public’s attitudes about what should take place in politics and what actually takes place may in coming decades erode citizens’ beliefs in the authority of elections.”

After all, when a candidate wins an election and everyone that cast a vote for him was casting a vote for a different and customized version of him, are we able to collectively know who we’re electing?

Considering these new frontiers for campaign advertising, it will be interesting to see whether targeted political advertisements fulfill Google’s dream of providing unique and relevant ad content across a spectrum of media to a heterogeneous voting public or, alternatively, live out the nightmare of a media environment where precision pandering hinders a unified understanding of who our elected leaders are, and what they represent. 

Photo of TV and remote by Daniel Horacio Agostini on Flickr and used with Creative Commons license.

Mark Hannah is the political correspondent for MediaShift. Mark’s political career began on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, where he worked as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently done advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. In the “off-season” (i.e., in between campaigns) he worked in the PR agency world and conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and received a master’s degree from Columbia University. His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarksTerritory