Wesleyan Media Project Publishes New Study on 2022 Midterm Advertising

Steve ScarpaMarch 22, 20237min
Erika Franklin Fowler

The 2022 midterm elections featured a record volume of television advertising, while, in addition, candidates in federal races spent almost $150 million on digital ads, according to a post-mortem analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project.

Late February, the Wesleyan Media Project published two reports on television and digital ad spending in The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics. “After all was said and done, and after billions of dollars were spent on political advertising in the 2022 U.S. midterm election campaign, American politics mostly changed on the margins,” according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

According to WMP research, Democrats tend to spend more heavily on digital ads than Republicans, but still that amount still pales in comparison to the amount of money spent on television in competitive races. Scholars have been predicting the waning of network television as a primary medium for decades, an expectation that has not yet come to pass.

“Older Americans are still a must-have audience for campaigns, and they tend to watch network television and to turn out very heavily in elections, so campaigns need to speak to them.” said Erika Franklin Fowler, professor of government and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “In the final weeks of a campaign, practitioners want to spend all of their money, and they will be much more concerned about winning than about efficiency. Television is still an easy place to spend where you can reach a large audience quickly.”

In terms of television advertising, ads touting Democratic candidates dominated the airwaves, continuing a trend from the last two congressional elections. Mentions of abortion and inflation also tended to be prevalent, neither of which had been a major topic in campaigns dating back to 2000. Spending by outside groups remained a dominant financial force, investing more heavily in races for the House of Representatives than seen in previous years.

The objective of digital advertising differed between campaigns—some candidates used their digital ad spending out of state to raise money. Others focused on topics of interest to in-state voters.

While there are plenty of ways to track television ad spending, Fowler and her team are finding that the diffuse nature of digital advertising creates challenges.

“The mechanisms we have to understand the content of advertising – that which allows us to be able to describe, understand, and tests its effects — are more difficult in the context of digital advertising because there is so much more of it and it is much more diffuse. Plus, there is no regulation that requires reporting. While we are lucky to have access to the Meta and Google libraries (of political ads), any researcher who has attempted to use them will tell you that they are imperfect and a challenge,” Fowler said.

The Wesleyan Media Project, working with the Collaborative on Media and Messaging for Health and Social Policy, was as interested in what didn’t appear on the list of topics as she was in what was there. Campaign advertising was seen as a way to understand how a politician might govern. Today, Fowler believes that we are beginning to see a difference in what candidates say in their ads, which can often align with partisan talking points, and their day-to-day actions.

“At WMP, we have always been interested in tracking and talking about what was on top of the campaign agenda in each cycle, but for COMM with my colleague Steven Moore, we’ve been more explicitly talking about what’s not at the top of the agenda, especially as it relates to citizen concerns and public policy. And there are big issues, like climate change, which are nowhere on the list of top topics in advertising,” Fowler said.

Fowler sees the volume of political ad spending in the midterms as an apt precursor to the 2024 presidential race. She expects that spending will continue to rise to stratospheric levels. “I think that we will continue to see increasing spending and advertising until elections become less competitive, and one of the two parties has a clear advantage,” Fowler said.

What does this all mean for the health of our democracy? Increased advertising spending helps the populace stay informed about candidates and campaigns and signals the importance of election season, Fowler said. However, consumers tend to see political advertising as negative and divisive.

“In general, political science has typically been more positive about the role of advertising – and especially about the role of negative advertising – in elections, and I would maintain that it still has an important role. You cannot contrast yourself with an opponent’s policies without being negative, and I think we prefer that type of discussion to purely positive platitudes in elections. On the other hand, it is also true that brazen falsehoods are aired more commonly now, and democracies are in peril, which increases the concerns about advertising. I would suggest, however, that the speech outside of paid media may be just as if not more concerning that political advertising itself,” Fowler said.