The Democratic Primary Reminds Us Ads Don't Force People to Do Anything

Recent presidential campaigns offer even more evidence that advertisers can't get consumers to buy everything they want them to buy.

Michael Bloomberg dropped out of the Democratic Party's primary earlier this month, but not before he spent more than $500 on political advertisements. According to Bloomberg (the news service, not the man),

Through Friday [Feb 21], he’s spent $505.8 million on broadcast, cable, radio and digital ads, according to Advertising Analytics. That’s an average of $5.5 million a day since he officially became a candidate.

It’s also $190 million more than all of his active Democratic rivals combined, including billionaire hedge-fund founder Tom Steyer, have spent on political ads.

This all netted Michael Bloomberg a whopping twenty-seven delegates. That's more than $18 million per delegate. This means Bloomberg didn't even succeed in becoming a spoiler or a kingmaker at the Democratic convention this summer.

In short, the failed Bloomberg ad blitz serves as a helpful reminder that advertising doesn't actually make people do anything. Ads on YouTube and TV—even when they are released in a veritable torrent as Bloomberg's ads were—are not enough in themselves to convince people to vote for someone.

We saw a similar issue during the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton outspent Trump 2 to 1. Indeed, among so-called outside groups (such as super PACs), "Pro-Clinton ads outnumbered pro-Trump ads 3 to 1—a mind-numbing 383,512 ads for Clinton compared to 125,617 supporting Trump."

This isn't to say that having $500 million lying around for advertising makes no difference. It may be that if Elizabeth Warren had had that sort of advertising budget, she might have been able to compete better with Bernie Sanders.

But the fact remains that if an advertisement asks a person to take some sort of action—whether it's buying Acme zit cream or voting for Michael Bloomberg, that action has to be something that the person targeted by the ad is open to doing. That is, the person being asked to buy or vote must have been already "conditioned"/"brainwashed"/"socialized"/"educated" in such a way that the advertisement's request for action seems like a good thing.

Often, ads simply stand no chance of succeeding because they're not addressing what the target audience is inclined to desire.

Ludwig von Mises realized this long ago and noted,

It is a widespread fallacy that skillful advertising can talk the consumers into buying everything that the advertiser wants them to buy. The consumer is, according to this legend, simply defenseless against "high-pressure" advertising. If this were true, success or failure in business would depend on the mode of advertising only. However, nobody believes that any kind of advertising would have succeeded in making the candle makers hold the field against the electric bulb, the horse drivers against the motorcars, the goose quill against the steel pen and later against the fountain pen.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. In recent years, for example, we've seen articles on how so-called Millennials are uninterested in buying what the funeral industry is selling. That is, expensive coffins and funerals are highly profitable for funeral homes, but fewer people under fifty are interested in buying. They want less-profitable cremations. So, the funeral industry has had to change the way it does business. But this raises a question: why should the funeral industry change anything? Why not just run a bunch of advertisements telling people to buy $20,000 coffins? Then surely everyone will buy them, right?

But that's obviously not how it works.

And then there's the story of the American waterbed industry. Many people over forty may still remember the time in the 1980s when all the cool kids had waterbeds. But then they fell out of favor and waterbed stores collapsed in a heap of irrelevance during the 1990s. But why did the waterbed merchants allow that to happen? Why didn't they just run a bunch of advertisements telling people to buy waterbeds?

People do what advertisers tell them to do, right?

After all,  we're told that "Russian hackers" with some targeted online ads — many of which were little more than low-budget unsophisticated memes — "swayed" the 2016 election and somehow turned Hillary voters into Trump voters. 

The next time a modern-day McCarthyite insists that the 2016 election was stolen by Russian memes, let's keep in mind that with $500 million, Bloomberg couldn't manage to convince more than a few voters to vote for him instead of for Joe Biden, who apparently thinks he's running for the US Senate.

So, let's just chalk up the failed Bloomberg campaign to yet another case of how all the ads in the world won't convince people to buy a product—or vote for a candidate—they don't like, don't want, and generally regard as useless.

This article was reprinted from the Mises Institute.