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How much media is a lot of media?
Ever-present political ads this time of year feel omnipresent and unavoidable, but are they really that dominant of a cultural force?
Last week Axios Media put out an analysis of digital media buying by Democrats this mid-term cycle in partnership with data from the good people at Bully Pulpit Interactive. The central focus of the piece is how much Dems are prioritizing their midterm narrative around the Dobbs decision and reproductive health. In the week since, in the wake of tightening races nationwide and GOP reclaiming the voter enthusiasm advantage, much has been made about whether Dem’s messaging is working or needs a shift for their closing argument, whether a shift toward economic benefits of The Biden Administration’s policies, or something more future focused might be more resonant and effective with more voters. What I take away from this study is that despite our lamenting how much money there is in politics and how pervasive the ads often feel this time of year especially if you live in a rare swing Congressional district or one of a handful of states with a competitive Senate race… it's actually just not that much media.
If we think about culture as the stories we believe and the set by what we’re taught but also by the aggregate dosage of those we see and resist, every impression is one infinitesimally small dose in a massive, life-long stream of story. Despite our narrow window of attention and sense of shifting sands, culture is built over time — both volume and time matter because breaking through is hard and effects are not permanent. Digital media advertising experts speculate that the average American sees as many as 5,000 ads every day. If that's even close to right (say only 100% too high), and we assume that these Dem political ads are very, very well focused on say a few hundred thousand voters in very competitive districts and states, this aggregate media buy still represents maybe ten doses a day for a month, 300 doses — in a stream of 75,000 other doses just this month — not to mention the nearly half a million doses over the last few election cycles.
Now clearly not all doses are the same. I’m only talking about digital ads here which are only one piece of anyone’s information network. Media about media dramatically expands the impact of individual doses. Mechanism matters. Content matters. Topic matters. Author matters. Source matters. Creative matters because story matters. But as function of cultural power less than half of one percent of a community's cultural stream in just a couple months is just does not seem like that much. (All this math begs a deeper analysis of what weighted percentage is needed to really change culture but that’s for another day….) We’re asking an awful lot of that one emotional appeal to outweigh an awful lot of other stories in an awfully short time frame. If we want to drive culture, if we want to shape the direction of society, we have to do that all the time in all the ways. And if that is correct, then always-on efforts like Courier Newsroom feel even more important. Dem’s drops-in-an-ocean-at-the-last-minute strategy is just not that likely to transform our political landscape in the ways an always-on approach to leadership and culture might.