Political Advertising

Why Political Advertising?

In a world where social media is shaping the minds of many people, political parties find is more important than ever to advertise in order to confirm the success of their party. Advertisements by political parties can range from promoting their policies, telling their personal story, to attacking their rival running mate’s policies. Parties spend upwards of $3 Billon on advertisements to encourage voter turnout and and to sway undecided voters.

Despite the parties efforts, it is ultimately up to the consumer of these advertisements to let the advertisements effect them, and what they do with them. Due to social media, people have a platform to post their opinions on elections to the world. If political parties can successfully advertise, then the consumers of the advertisement will share it online, therefore reaching an even wider audience.

Today, the approval ratings for the US congress are a mere 24%, and this is a direct result of political advertising. So, why can’t we trust our governments when we were the ones who elected them? Because voters are being lied to. Political advertising, although effective, is known to contain many lies and promises that most political parties do not keep. So is lying in the best interest of the parties?

An example of a negative campaign ad from the Canadian 2016 election.

An example of positive advertising.

Game Theory

There are many aspects that makes political advertising effective and worth the cost. In terms of game theory, although the advertisers are “competing” against each other their decisions also depend on the actions of the consumers. In my project, we will be looking at the parties’ decision to lie to the consumers in the advertising as well as the direct effect on the voters.

The Political Prisoners Dilemma

A political parties decision to lie to their audience is very similar to the prisoner’s dilemma we have studied in Game Theory. The “classic” prisoner’s dilemma goes like this: Two prisoners are asked about a crime they have committed. Let’s call one prisoner A and the other B:

  • If A and B both confess they both serve a light punishment
  • If A confesses and B does not, B avoids any punishment while A has to serve a heavy punishment (and Vice Versa)
  • If A and B both deny they will both go free

This situation is very similar to that on political advertising when the parties decide to have negative or positive advertising. If one campaign lies and makes things up about the opposing candidate then they are more effective if the other does not respond. If they both go negative and lie, this may reduce the voters respect for both parties, yielding a negative payoff for both parties. If both decide to do positive, truthful advertising they will both prevail; however, not convincing many of why they should vote for them.

Let’s see how this looks in a matrix:

Political Party B
Political Party A Positive Ad Negative Ad
Positive Ad


Both parties do not interfere with each others ads therefore getting effective advertising but not the most effective.


Political Party B paints Political Part A in a negative light and there is no response from Political Party A. Therefore, Political Party B is successful in their advertising.

Negative Ad


Political Party A paints Political Part B in a negative light and there is no response from Political Party B. Therefore, Political Party A is successful in their advertising.


Both parties release negative ads against one another causing the voters to looks at them in a more negative light, but not as negative as if they were the only party to not do negative advertising.

In game theory we look for equilibrium, which is usually the best-worst option .In this case, very similar to the prisoner’s dilemma the most optimal strategy (Nash Equilibrium) is for both parties to use negative and untruthful advertising in order to avoid the worse possible case scenario.

What about the consumers?

As mentioned prior, the consumers also play a role in this game because it is their choice as to how they react to the advertising. In game theory however, we do not see the consumers as ‘rational’ players simply because their decision to react to the advertising and vote for a certain candidate is purely emotional and up to their own bias. In game theory is is extremely difficult to account for emotions as we consider everyone as rational players.

How do you respond to political advertisements? Vote here

Why does this matter?

All in all, political advertisement is important to our community because it shapes the future. As consumers, it is important that we respond to advertisements with caution as most advertisements are used as tactics to influence voters and aren’t necessarily true. Although it is negative on the consumer for a political party to lie in advertising, according to game theory it is a successful tactic in attracting voters as you cannot guarantee that the other party will not use negative tactics.

Share this project
  1. April 28, 2017 by emmawpga

    I had no idea that the effect of political advertising was so great!

  2. April 28, 2017 by Andrea

    This was a really interesting read!

  3. April 28, 2017 by charliewpga

    It’s great to know that I should be more cautious when looking at political advertisements!

  4. April 28, 2017 by jkboland

    What an excellent project! So eloquent and articulate. Thank you!

  5. April 28, 2017 by Janet.Izzo

    Love these examples! Nice job!

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