How U.S. opinion on political advertisements has changed over time

Linley SandersData Journalist
November 03, 2022, 5:30 PM GMT+0

In the final week before the 2022 congressional election, TV messages on the economy, crime, and abortion are ubiquitous for many viewers as candidates and their backers make a push to get their message out to possible voters. If you think there are more political advertisements than during prior congressional elections, you likely are not imagining it. Spending on political ads for the 2022 congressional elections is projected to exceed prior non-presidential-year congressional elections and be among the most expensive ever. For some TV broadcasters, it's even surpassed the number of advertising dollars they got during the 2020 presidential election.

Political advertising has only grown as a medium for communicating with the electorate since the first TV ad of its kind was broadcast in 1952. To explore how public opinion has changed over the decades, YouGov used the Roper iPoll Archive to find historical poll questions about political advertisements that could be re-asked today. This is a part of a YouGov series called Polls from the Past in which we ask questions previously asked on polls decades ago, to see how — and by how much — Americans’ opinions have changed.

Are Americans paying less attention to political ads than to other TV ads?

In a question modeled after a 1984 CBS News poll, YouGov asked how much attention Americans pay to political advertisements compared to the attention they give to other TV advertisements.

In 1984, half of American adults with an opinion said they gave political advertisements the same amount of attention as other TV advertisements. Just 39% of Americans today say the same. The share of Americans with an opinion who say they give political advertisements less attention has increased to 44% today, up 16 percentage points from 28% in 1984. (These figures exclude people who say "not sure" in the 2022 poll or were categorized as having "no opinion" in the 1984 poll.)

How much influence do candidate advertisements have on people's votes?

Inspired by a 1986 Associated Press question, YouGov asked Americans how much influence advertisements about candidates have on the way they personally vote.

A majority of Americans (58%) today say these candidate advertisements have no influence on their vote, an increase from 40% in 1986. The share of Americans who say the media campaigns have a moderate amount of influence on their vote is down to 34% today, compared to 53% in 1986. (The figures exclude people who say "not sure" in the 2022 poll or were categorized as having "no opinion" in the 1986 poll.)

Are news reports or TV commercials more informative?

In the months leading up to elections, broadcast news organizations are often balancing news reports with candidates’ TV commercials — but which do registered voters find more helpful? In a question adapted from a 1990 Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press poll, YouGov asked Americans whether news reports or TV commercials give them a better idea of where candidates stand on issues. For the 2022 version of this question, we included options for people to say they are equally helpful and that neither is helpful.

Among registered voters, news reports (41%) are seen as better than a candidate's TV commercials (7%) — but when given the option, 18% say both are equally helpful. More than one-quarter (28%) say neither is particularly helpful in getting an idea of where candidates stand on issues. The 1990 question found that 63% of registered voters chose news reports and 28% chose candidates' commercials.

What is the impact of negative advertisements?

Most Americans today say negative advertisements don't have a place in campaigns and a majority say negative ads do not help them learn about candidates. This evaluation was inspired by a set of questions from Gallup in 2000 asking Americans about their view of negative advertisements on a 5-point scale from 1 to 5, ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree with 3 falling in the middle of agreeing and disagreeing. In an adaptation, YouGov asked Americans to evaluate the same statements on a 4-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree, with no middle option provided.

YouGov's poll found that 53% of Americans disagree with the idea that negative advertisements have a role in political campaigns — including 33% who say they strongly disagree with this statement. This is a slight decrease from the 44% who said in the 2000 Gallup poll that they strongly disagreed.

How should social media platforms regulate political advertising?

In addition to re-asking decades-old questions about television advertising, the YouGov poll asked new questions about a medium that wasn't available for campaign advertisers until recently: social media. With political advertising inescapable for so many Americans with a television or a social-media presence, it's perhaps understandable that 77% of Americans would support allowing users to opt out of political advertising. That's an idea that Republicans (79%) and Democrats (78%) are equally likely to support.

About half of Americans (52%) support banning political advertising altogether — with similar shares backing bans in the year (51%) or week (55%) leading up to the election. There is also bipartisan support for fact-checking political advertising, though Democrats (80%) are much more supportive of that than Republicans (60%) are.

— Carl Bialik and Taylor Orth contributed to this article

The poll on October 25 - 27, 2022 was conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Adobe Stock (ronstik)