Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

Candidates spend daunting amounts of money getting out their message, with tens of millions invested in campaign advertisements alone. This year, even the Olympics were peppered with political ads, amid questions of whether all this advertising is ethical or even effective. While it’s standard to hear criticism of the money spent on extravagant promotions, John McGinnis, author of Accelerating Democracy, has some thoughts on the important informational benefits to our current campaign finance system. Read his post here:


Are Campaign Ads Worth the Money?

John McGinnis


It’s the campaign season and with it come the perennial complaints that there is too much money spent on politics, particularly on campaign advertisements. I am skeptical about this claim. Just as democracy is said to be the worst system except all the others, so a structure where candidates and groups can spend large sums to make their positions and that of their opponents known is the worse system of campaigning except for all the others.  In particular, it represents the only system we have for getting information about which candidates support which policies to the many voters who do not focus on politics except at election time and even then are hard to reach.

My book argues that democracy should take advantage of the computational revolution to improve information about policy results. Thus, a system of governance that promotes empirical testing of policies, prediction markets, and dispersed media on the internet, like blogs, can all help us better understand the likely consequences of policy and improve political choices. But to make the most difference, this information must get to voters at the election time.  But many voters are inattentive, particularly in a world that offers far more interesting distractions than politics. It is fact that very little money is spent on political advertising compared to advertising for material goods or for entertainment. Political advertisements must be numerous enough to break through a cacophony of nonpolitical information and that volume requires substantial funds to sustain.

Campaigns  and their advertising outreach are still the best way of reaching voters who mostly disregard politics.  Politicians and their supporters have incentives to inform them about the relevant policies and their consequences. To be sure, they will do so in a biased manner, but their opponents have incentives to correct them and they frequently do, running advertisements that show newspaper articles that debunk false claims. Sadly, the alternative to campaign advertisements is not a policy seminar but a beer commercial.

In my book I discuss the evidence that political advertisements make people better informed about candidates’ positions on policy.  Better information about policy consequences will not have much effect on voters if it cannot be connected to candidates’ positions on policies.  Political advertisements also directly address policy consequences, such as the state of the economy and its relation to policy. To be sure, they do so in a very rudimentary way, but these messages can be improved as the knowledge about likely the consequences of policies improve.    If empiricism and prediction markets can better evaluate policy results, political advertisements will focus on them more.  A President will be eager to tout that a market’s prediction that his election will lead to more economic growth than his opponent. A mayor will want to make it known that his school program has improved educational outcomes, according to the best empirical studies.   But campaign spending will still be necessary to convey this information by cutting through the clutter of nonpolitical information.

In my next post, I will address three possible downsides of permitting ample private money to pay for political advertisements—lack of disclosure, spending by special interests, and the excessive influence of the wealthy.


John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.



  1. I totally agree with the fact that more money is spent on many other advertising forms and we need campaigning to know our politicians. But sometimes it is extensive. I am left confused after reading your article on which side to take.


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