Sponsored Content, Propaganda, & Public Behavior

Andrew Sullivan has been on a tirade recently against “sponsored content”.  His latest target – pro-Israel “advertorials” placed in Buzzfeed by ReThink Israel, an organization run by Sheldon Adelson.

It is generally assumed that propaganda is successful, but this relies on strong assumptions about media consumption and public opinion.  In order to actually affect behavior, a few links are necessary.  People must read or watch a given piece of media, people must process the media, people must remember the media, it must flow through in a non-trivial fashion to their expressed political beliefs, and finally it must actually change their actions.  In order to actually affect politics, the change in belief must be substantial enough for at least some people to alter their patterns of activism, donation, or voting.

This could be successful, but I’m pretty dubious.  Mr. Adelson spent a great deal of money (as much as $150M) on the 2012 election.  This was money spent in very short time period, on a single issue, with a very clear call to action – vote for Mitt Romney a few weeks from now.  He helped saturate the airwaves for a relatively small group of voters in swing states, again covering a very short time frame and with extremely strong messaging about how Barack Obama will destroy freedom & Israel.  There seems to be no noticeable change in the election directly attributable to Mr. Adelson’s spending.  In fact, as far as anybody can tell the money was basically wasted.  These milquetoast advertisements about how Israel is great to visit (accurate)

It’s not clear what the takeaway is for the Buzzfeed crowd.  On the one hand, given that it is so unlikely to have any sort of consequences on public opinion they can take the money with a clean conscience.  On the other, the fact that it has so little real weight makes it a more gratuitous insult to their journalistic ethics.  For those of you without much love for Adelson, you should probably feel relieved that he is blowing his money on such ineffectual things.

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