What Advertising History Says About the Future of Fake News

Voters get lots of robocalls around election time, but the volume is modest compared with the number of calls about credit cards, vacation deals and loans.

Given the trends, the future looks grim. But before abandoning hope, remember that the history of advertising also teaches that when people get used to ads, the ads stop working.

Researchers have a term for it: advertising wearout. In the 1980s, Margaret Henderson Blair examined television commercials and found that “the overall persuasiveness of an ad declines exponentially” the more that consumers are exposed to it. Since then, researchers have documented the phenomenon in different media.

Two business school professors, Michael Braun at Southern Methodist University and Wendy W. Moe at the University of Maryland, have found that the effectiveness of an online ad falls almost 60 percent every time it is viewed. And new ads are less effective if they are part of a campaign the user has seen before.

As with special effects in movies, consumers become desensitized to ads the more they see them. The scary creatures from 1950s films, the shark in “Jaws” or the spaceships from science-fiction movies of the 1990s now often look like jokes.

Political ads often age badly, too. In his history of negative campaigning, “Going Dirty,” David Mark writes that in the 1994 election, dozens of Republican congressional candidates used “morphing” technology in ads to visually transform their Democratic opponents into President Bill Clinton, to devastating effect. But, in my observation, even one election cycle later, with the technology outdated and overused, people stopped responding.

That’s why political consultants say straightforward TV ads no longer work. People tune them out.

As technology develops, the same wearout effect is likely to occur with advertising based on fake news. As we are inundated with new, targeted, deceptive ads, we may get sick of them and, perhaps, stop finding them persuasive. For now, it’s the best hope we have.

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