Negative campaign ads that leave a sour taste in your mouth and an unsettling feeling in your stomach might not be all bad, according to new interpretations. YouGov analyzed a random sample of 600 individual’s reactions to political ads, representative of the U.S. population at large. This topic was the foundation for a panel discussion hosted by The Brookings Institute in Washington, DC on July 23rd .
The panel, New Ways of Evaluating Campaign Ads featured panelists John Geer Professor and Chair of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, Doug Rivers, President and CEO of YouGov/Polimetrix, Lynn Vavreck Professor at UCLA and director of the Center of the Study of Campaigns, Jeremy Peters, political reporter for The New York Times, and Ken Goldstein, Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The event began with an overview of the history and discussion of different broadcast mediums. The initial emergence of broadcasting in the 1960’s came about with the introduction and growing use of television being utilized to reach as many people as possible with no limiting measures. Then came narrow casting in the 1970’s and 1980’s with the introduction of cable creating the capability to target different demographics with certain ads or messages, the 1990’s and the Internet brought about mircocasting allowing candidates to narrow their focus even further, and finally to present-day and nanocasting using social media networks. This topic is of interest to political scientists (especially those that focus on advertising)to see how people respond to these different types of broadcasting and their reactions to both positive and negative ads. The continuous narrowing of casting has allowed for campaigns to be even more tailored and more effective in targeting a certain demographic with certain campaign ads.
Geer began his talk by showing the attack ad America the Beautiful, created by the Obama Campaign, and then discussed comparative data taken from the sampling of 600 individuals taken by YouGov. This particular project involving the analysis of presidential campaign ads is a partnership between YouGov and Vanderbilt’s political science department. The survey asks the viewer their reaction and comments regarding the ad (such as if it was memorable, or overall positive or negative). Tentative results indicate that it is irrelevant if the ad is positive or negative. Statistically speaking, they are almost the same in how many people actually believe they are truthful. Built into the 600 respondents are 200 pure independents that are meant to represent the sway votes. By independents they mean people that have not identified with a particular party at any point.
Rivers (a partner with Greer on the project) explained how gauging people’s responses and reactions to different ads has now moved from focus groups to Internet surveys. There used to be a stigma against the use of Internet surveys for information, as it was perceived that those responding would be twenty-something year-old computer geeks. This is no longer the case with more and more people becoming familiar with the Internet and using it on a daily basis, with age groups ranging from young to old. While the 600 sample size does not include non-Internet users, there are fail safes built into the system and low use Internet users are included.
Vavreck was asked why so many people are interested in analyzing political ads. She responded that, “People are interested because it matters to election outcomes.” She went on to say that political scientists are not positive how effective certain ads are, but they know that overall advertisements do have an effect. She gave two examples – the first was the 2000 Presidential Election where George W. Bush was behind in certain battle ground states in the polls. He launched a series of ads and gained footing, whereas in states that no ads were run Al Gore pulled ahead. The second example (also from 2000), pertained to the Texas Governor’s race with Rick Perry who let a team of academics decide when and how often his ads would run. The result was a 5% increase in favor of Perry where the ads were running, but almost as soon as the ads came off the air the numbers leveled back out. This idea of ad decay is still being looked at when determining the effectiveness of ads.
Ken Goldstein explained that ads matter in the margin because after decades of political scientists studying data, all that is certain is that, “ Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans… as such it is when the margins matter that ads can be decisive.” He also discussed how a lot of money will most likely be going into local spot ads in order to potentially reach that margin, the person watching Jeopardy or the football game and isn’t closely following politics, or already made up their mind of who they like. Goldstein commented that the YouGov project, is “changing the game” from just analyzing “tonnage” (the number and frequency of ads), to the actual responses they are generating.
The last panelist was Jeremy Peters, who also said that ads are for “persuadable voters,” or those that have yet to pick a party. Peters also commented on how campaigns today are focused on convincing people how atrocious the other candidate is. This strategy isn’t seen in other advertising fields- for example, “Ford doesn’t try to sell you a car by saying how much you hate your Chevy,” said Peters. Since it would be difficult for the Romney campaign to openly attack the Obama campaign since voters can see what he has done in office and he is currently the symbol of the nation, they are utilizing what is called the “soft kill” or subtlety going after Obama such as saying Obama’s “Not a terrible person..he just let you down,” is how Peters phrased it.
Peters said that it’s becoming more and more common for candidates to “use media to create fodder for their attack ads.” This can be seen with Obama’s attack ad on Romney that utilized a Washington Post article: Romney’s Bain Capitol invested in companies that moved jobs overseas, that ran on June 21st of this year. While attack ads might seem like they just lead to a disgusted voter, Goldstein says that those negative or attack ads actually galvanize the viewer to become engaged and search for more information to see if the ad is truthful or not. They might even decide to vote afterward. Goldstein also agreed with Peters in saying it is becoming prevalent to let “news reporters deliver the negative hit.”
Overall, the panelists agreed that the new YouGov program would yield very interesting and thought provoking results during the 2012 campaign season.