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Man's hand holding stamp above a notebook page with "Approved" stamped on in green ink

Political Advertising’s Secret Weapon: “I Approve This Message”

April 24th, 2018   ||    by Oriana Schwindt

“I approve this message.” The phrase has become so ubiquitous in political advertising that it’s long since passed the punchline stage. There’s something soothing about it, though. Spoken by a calm, confident voice, it tells you that, at the very least, someone involved with the candidate’s campaign has looked at the ad and verified it’s worthy of such a stamp.

But is that really always the case?

Whose Approval, Exactly?

The “I approve this message” vocal stamp comes from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The purpose, per Arizona Senator John McCain, was to force candidates for federal office to take responsibility for the ads being run on their behalf, thereby reducing the negative attack ads permeating the airwaves.

The “Stand by Your Ad” provision did have an initial suppressing effect on those negative ads, making the political advertising landscape a little less toxic, Kathleen Hall-Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, told Marketplace in 2016. But by that year’s election, a much more sinister effect was in play, according to a study published in the February 2018 Journal of Marketing Research. The study found that appending the “I approve this message” language to negative ads actually increases the effectiveness of those ads, compared to neutral or positive ads.

“Part of the problem, we find, comes from the approval language itself. People take that as an implicit promise that [the candidate is] really saying that what [the ad is] saying is true,” study co-author Clayton Critcher told Mother Jones.

And because people take “I approve this message” as a pledge that the ad’s content is true, it doesn’t matter whether the content has in fact been adequately vetted. The candidates themselves could have been misled about the actual content of an ad—but because that verbal stamp is there, the audience is reassured.

Approval Is Good, but Trust Is Better

The “Stand by Your Ad” provision is a federal statute. Candidates for state and local offices aren’t required to tack on an “I approve this message.” But the results of the Journal of Marketing Research study indicate that even local candidates could benefit (in good spirit or not) from the use of such a tagline.

That’s a powerful message for all candidates to take under consideration, as well as stations about to be inundated with political advertising for the 2018 midterm elections.

In local news, trust is everything. It’s one of the reasons people choose one affiliate over another. Videa’s own study on consumer perspectives around local and national news indicated that 62 percent of respondents trust local news more than national news.

This is the same trust audiences have that their candidates are, in fact, screening the messages in their ads. A word of caution, though: While candidates’ verbal stamp of approval on ads may be a useful tool, a time may come in the next few years where “I approve this message” becomes as hollow a promise as the equally familiar “new and improved.”

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