Political ad wars 2012: the messages and moments that will frame the 2012 election
a maslansky luntz + partners initiative in collaboration with the Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group and SquareOff
In an election season set to shatter records for television advertising the ad battle is likely to play an outsized role in determining which party controls congress and occupies the White House.
Over the course of the next several months we’ll be testing some of the most talked about, most controversial, and most powerful political advertisements with hundreds of American voters. We’ll be talking to Democrats, Republicans and the all-important swing voters.
Our goal? As the campaigns seek to frame, blame and call each other names, we want to understand what messages and attacks stick and why. We want to not only understand what messages are resonating with the American people, but to help give you an inside track on who is likely to control power come November.
By using our proprietary Instant Response technology, we’ll get to hear from them what they think are the most compelling, persuasive and credible messages being delivered by the campaigns and their supporters.
What follows is a detailed breakdown of what we heard during our first week of testing.
To start things off we choose test both TV and web advertisements from both of the major presidential campaigns on an issue central to the race: the economy. What we heard was fascinating.
presidential attack ads: part 1
We tested three current ads attacking President Obama and three that attack Governor Romney. The attacks were selected from recent ad flights from around the country and each reflects a prominent theme of their opponent’s efforts to frame their campaign.
We asked 225 voters to rate the ads on a moment-by moment basis and used their scores to assess the overall effectiveness of the ads. Voters were asked to indicate how positive or negative their reaction to the ad and effectiveness was judged based on peak intensity of response together with the overall average negative score for the ad. Because Independents are so important to this election, we also paid special attention to the intensity of responses from Independent voters.
Based on participant reactions and qualitative feedback following each ad, we’ve given each campaign the following ratings for this series of advertisements:
Why Romney won out. The three Romney campaign ads we tested told the economic story at a very high level. They didn’t get into easily disputed facts. Or dive into the complex minutiae of fiscal policies. Instead, they stuck to one simple theme that everyone could agree on and they repeated over and over: the economy is in trouble. And it worked. Their ads had a more visceral emotional impact on participants. Independents and even some Democrats were moved by the direct approach.
Why Obama lost out. The Obama campaign played small ball. Their ads focused on more specific issues like Romeny’s record raising taxes and fees as governor and outsourcing jobs to China and India during his time in the private sector. They were laden with facts and were more reminiscent of the issue ads Americans have seen in past campaigns. This more limited focus, which relied more heavily on audiences believing their facts and sources, resulted in more subdued scores, especially among independents.
what we learned
1 Facts can get in the way of a good story. Attack ads succeed when they present an easy-to-digest narrative. Economic stories tend to work best when they are told at a very high level or a very personal level. At the same time, negative ads often fail when they rely too much on so-called facts to tell their story. Today’s voters knows that both sides have plenty of facts to tell their story. As a result, voters tend to instinctively push back on facts and statistics that can be easily disputed. Though this is often frustrating for people who believe the facts are on their side, voter consistently respond more intensely to narratives than to statistics.
2 Portraying Obama as out of touch can pay real dividends. By far the most impactful ads we tested portrayed Obama as out of touch with the current economic reality. Romney’s most effective ad repeatedly shows the president saying “the private sector is doing fine.” Even Democrats agreed this is a damning piece of tape. And one that (at least) raises questions.
“The hammering away on Obama’s line about jobs in the private sector. I think this is a very strong idea, though I don’t necessarily agree with it.
3. Romney raising fees and taxes? They’re not buying it. Turning an opponent’s strengths into a weakness is a tried and true approach in politics. And no doubt Democrats will attempt to paint Romney’s economic record as mixed. But the ad we tested attacking Romney for raising taxes in Massachusetts fell flat. It just didn’t line up with voters’ views of the former governor as someone who is going to cut taxes across the board.
“It looked like a lot of smoke and mirror action on Obama’s part.”
- Independent Participant
4. Romney as corporate raider? A better approach. If Democratic strategists had one wish it might be to paint Romney as a “corporate raider.” In fact, they included that phrase in one of the ads we tested. The result? More promising. While the phrase “corporate raider” didn’t completely resonate, the idea did. That’s because unlike the claims that he raised taxes and fees, the charge of outsourcing is in line with voter?s current views of Romney. Many Independents and Democrats cited it as the most persuasive message the Obama camp delivered.
“Romney’s economics aren’t working.
Too much outsourcing thanks to Governor Romney.”
5. Show average Americans. Only one of the ads we tested portrayed average Americans. The Romney campaigned sandwiched a series of clips of Americans talking about their current economic struggles in between clips of Obama talking positively about the current economy. And it worked. In fact, when compared with a similar ad in which the Romney campaign used a montage of news reporters talking about the state of the economy the testimonials had far more impact.
“The ad featuring the out of work Americans was well done. I could feel the pain of the unemployed and they were very sympathetic. I am fairly liberal but was most moved by this Republican ad. The ad really would resonate with average middle class Americans.”
Below is the complete rundown of ads cited in this week’s report. TV ads for testing were provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
- “Our Time” (Romney) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AOvFGWT-lZ8
- “Fine?” (Romney) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=s9Yqj3tvcQc
- “Jolt” (Romney) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=JwsHRHPcSSU
- “Revealed” (Obama) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oi0qLHHWBbc
- “Mosaic” (Obama) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcqJlqkWRvo&feature=player
- “Come and Go” (Obama) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVaw5cTjxmk
Tags: political ad testing