Trump Biden ads

Raleigh, NC/United States- 10/27/2020: A pile of political mailers on a table in the crucial battleground state of North Carolina. (Sharkshock/Shutterstock)

BOSTON — When you scroll through your social media feeds, do you click on any targeted political ads? Scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are offering insights into the effectiveness of political microtargeting and how it impacts public opinion. Results show that microtargeting, when done right, can significantly outperform traditional one-size-fits-all campaign strategies when it comes to the power of persuasion.

Interestingly, targeting messages based on multiple characteristics of the voters didn’t always add an advantage. The effectiveness also varied depending on the policy issue at hand.

Imagine receiving a political ad that speaks directly to your concerns – say, about local schools or healthcare. That’s microtargeting at work. It uses data analytics to understand voter preferences and tailor messages that resonate personally.

As political campaigns continue to embrace digital strategies, balancing the effectiveness of microtargeting with ethical considerations becomes crucial. Researchers used advanced machine learning techniques to predict which political advertisements would be most effective for different individuals based on their political leanings and social demographics.

Using the Lucid online survey platform, the authors conducted survey experiments with over 23,000 participants. They created issue-based campaigns focused on the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and universal basic income, randomly assigning participants to control or treatment groups. The treatment groups viewed video ads aimed at swaying opinions on the respective policies.

Mother walking to vote with child
Results show that microtargeting, when done right, can significantly outperform traditional one-size-fits-all campaign strategies when it comes to the power of persuasion. (© Christine Glade –

The study’s second phase involved over 5,000 participants, testing different campaign strategies. The researchers evaluated the effectiveness of microtargeting by comparing the best-performing message from the first phase, a randomly selected ad, and a targeted ad based on machine learning. The complexity of the targeting process, ranging from one to four personal characteristics, was also varied.

The findings indicate that targeting based on a single attribute outperformed other tactics, but microtargeted ads using multiple voter characteristics did not offer additional advantages. The study aims to contribute to ongoing debates about microtargeting in U.S. political campaigns, providing a rigorous evaluation of its potential impact.

“In a traditional messaging context where you have one issue you’re trying to convince people on, we found that targeting did have a substantial persuasive advantage,” says study co-author David Rand in a media release.

While the results suggest that targeting can be a persuasive strategy, the study also highlights the limitations of microtargeting in politics. Unlike business advertising, generating reliable data for political targeting and optimization is challenging due to the difficulty of obtaining information about voter attitudes and decisions. The researchers emphasize the importance of understanding when and in which contexts microtargeting may be effective.

Rand stresses that targeting is often a good idea in political advertising but cautions against viewing it as mind control. The study encourages a nuanced understanding of microtargeting’s role in politics and its limitations outside the experimental context.

The research was conducted independently and provides valuable insights for political campaigns and discussions on the promises and perils of microtargeting. The study’s findings offer a middle ground, highlighting the advantages of targeting while dispelling the notion of overwhelming influence.

It’s important to note that the study received support from Google and Meta, further contributing to the exploration of microtargeting in different domains.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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1 Comment

  1. Emory Kendrick says:

    Has this writer been living under a rock? This has gone on since the beginning of elections. Only the technology has changed.