Fred Davis and Presidential Political Ads

August 14, 2012, 5:53 PM GMT+0

The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University is currently conducting the Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project. This project allows the public to weigh in on political ads from this election cycle instead of pundits or the media. The survey sample is made up of 600 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who evaluate the ads for categories such as fairness, emotional appeal, and truthfulness.

While this project focuses on the public’s thoughts, today we have an expert’s opinion on these ads as a contrasting counterpart. Fred Davis, CEO of Strategic Perception Inc. and Republican media strategist, shares his views on the following ads. What follows is an interview where Fred and I discuss three ads from this election cycle and what we should expect to see next.

All ads discussed can be found on the Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project’s site here:

Ad #1: Obama’s “Choice”

FD: A few things of interest here. Number one, I LOVE that ad. I heard that when they went in to film this, Obama looked at the script and didn’t like it. He rewrote this word for word by himself in about 10 minutes, and it’s almost poetic because it’s so well written. I’m a Republican, so I don’t necessarily agree with his message, but I think for what he needs to do, which is frame the choice, THAT ad delivered it really well.

SF: Agreed. Obama comes across as so likeable here, especially with that uplifting, positive music in the background…

FD: Yeah, exactly. Sitting at that kitchen table…

SF: And with his sleeves rolled up… he’s very good at this.

FD: I think also, this is a return. This is the first time I’ve seen a return to the Barack Obama performance-wise that he was in ‘08. Then he was brilliant. He didn’t say a word that wasn’t brilliant. And he’s back to that with this ad.

SF: Ok, so when you look at the survey responses, partisanship is driving much of the sentiment. Republicans hate the ad, Democrats love the ad, but let’s talk about Independents. Of Independents, 30% find the ad to be unfair, 51% find the ad to be untruthful and 45% find the ad to be unbelievable. Why do you think that is? 51% of Independents, the majority of Independents find this ad to be untruthful.

FD: I would say that is very bad news for Obama. Because I think this ad delivered the choice in this election really well. And yet the Independents who four years ago would have gone to that message in a heartbeat aren’t going for it now. It was written so simply, so cleanly, and so elegantly. I don’t think it’s going to get any better. I don’t think you can deliver that message any better. So I think there is something wrong with the message. It’s not the messenger and it’s not the way that it’s written.

SF: It seems as if Obama was trying to go for a subtle contrast—the choice—obviously the choice is between him and his Republican opponent. What are some of the implicit things he was trying to accomplish with this message?

FD: He’s trying to say, I’m the calm, professional in the race. He’s trying to say, I’m back to the Barack Obama you love.

SF: Is there anything that you would change to the ad to make it more effective?

FD: You know, I wouldn’t, Sylvia. I LOVE that ad, I think it’s brilliant. It’s my favorite ad in this whole presidential cycle.

SF: Wow, that’s a strong statement! Any thoughts, in terms of where and when to air an ad like this?

FD: Well, presidential contests very rapidly become duels to the death, meaning all negative. And I don’t call this a negative ad. I would call this a nice contrast ad. A nice choice ad may be even better than a contrast ad—there is not a negative tonal thing in there. He’s basically saying Mr. Romney’s a decent American; he has one plan for the country. I’m a decent American; I have a plan for the country. Your choice now is to pick which one. Had I done it, I would have started out with this in a big ad buy, in a BIG way. I would have had this everywhere.

Ad #2: Obama for America as Firms AKA Obama’s “America the Beautiful”

SF: So the next ad is Obama’s America the Beautiful ad.

FD: Oh yeah (groans). Ok, so far, we’ve seen two Obama ads and they are my two favorites.

SF: So, let’s talk about memorability.


SF: So what is it about this ad that makes it so memorable?

FD: I think Romney singing is what makes it, because it’s the unique element. It also amplifies and validates an opinion that people already have about Mitt Romney, that he’s not a normal human.

SF: Do you think the ad is fair or unfair? Did they go below the belt with this? Romney’s singing off key a little bit…

FD: I think it’s a really good ad. Maybe Mitt would like to rethink singing that song; he wasn’t very good.

SF: Haha. So across partisanships, we see similar breakdowns in percentages of those who were “disgusted” with the ad. Out of all Americans, 48% were disgusted with the ad. If we look at partisan groups, we see of pure Independents, 49% were disgusted, of Democrats, 50% were disgusted, and of Republicans, 47% were disgusted. What about this ad is driving this emotion?

FD: Those people might think this ad is a cheap shot. But in the same breath, they are going to remember this ad better than any other ad they’re going to see on this subject. They’re going to remember that he [Romney] allegedly had secret accounts, outsourced jobs, and everything that’s in there.

SF: We hear a lot about decay effects of ads; people are forgetting what the ads are saying. So the goal of the ad is that hopefully, people are going to remember this ad and even retain the information in this ad.

FD: As you well know, that’s my life. If you don’t have something memorable in every single ad you do, you’ve wasted whatever dollars went on the air. With that one, they found something that was highly memorable and I think they did a really good job with it.

SF: So overall, you would find this ad to be persuadable?

FD: Yeah, I would think so.

Ad #3: Romney’s “Doing fine”

FD: I’ve seen this one too, and that one was a very good one. There are so many that aren’t! I like this ad. I think it’s really well produced. There aren’t that many words in it, the music is perfect, the graphics are perfect. So far, we’ve seen three ads. They were all really good and effective. But all of them ran for only a day or two. And that’s the flaw.

And these, that is a KILLER message. I bet that these people have 500 ads all ready to go and they are just throwing them up to see what sticks, forgetting one of the tenets of advertising, which is repetition. Yes, you have to have something memorable. Mitt Romney singing, yes, that’s memorable. They threw that ad out, they got some press on it, and they moved onto something else. Both sides should find what sticks and STAY WITH IT. Once someone has seen it 16 times, he’s not going to forget that Obama thinks the middle class is doing fine.

SF: Do you think the game is changing? We are seeing all this involvement from wealthy donors, super PACs, and there are ads across all sorts of mediums. Is that why each ad has had such a short running time?

FD: Maybe that’s part of it, but I think it’s a mistake. It’s been going that way for a long time. You never see Budweiser run an ad and it’s gone in two days. I think most political ad people have forgotten that it’s reach AND frequency. We need to go back to the basics. They’re getting their reach, and forgetting the frequency.

SF: Interesting. So across Independents, 47% felt angry after watching this ad. Do you think that’s an appropriate emotion to tap into if you’re the Romney campaign?

FD: The key is to tap into any emotion. It doesn’t matter which emotion. Because that means it’s more than just forgettable recitation of facts. So if 47% of Independents got angry—that’s a good thing.

Closing questions:

SF: In addition to the messages we’ve seen in these ads, what other messages do you think campaigns should emphasize next?

FD: Obama has to get back to the hopeful orator that he was. He has to win people over with his personality. Romney needs to ignore his own personality and try to win with his competence. I’m not sure you can build a competence argument for Obama, but you can try to find a way to claw back into that “hope” and “change” thing without using those words.

SF: So Obama’s campaign should air more ads that are like “The Choice?”

FD: Yes, but with more excitement. That was a calm ad that was easy to forget, but a great layout of the choice. They have to take that and make it more memorable. Think outside the box. Think quality of advertising first, message second.

SF: Ok, last question. You mention “hope” and “change.” How important are taglines or slogans to these ads? Do they make or break ads?

FD: Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. In Michigan last cycle, Rick Snyder was helped immeasurably get elected because of his tagline: “One tough nerd.” There was never a commercial that didn’t have that slogan in it. There was never a commercial that even varied it. It was always “One tough nerd.” What is Romney’s? “Believe in America” or something like that. That doesn’t say much, does it?

SF: Yeah, that’s a problem. We’re not even sure what it is!

FD: It’s also on most of Romney’s campaign materials, but not all things. It’s like a stick on note. It’s not part of the core message. Same with Obama’s “Forward.” When the big argument is whether to use a period or not after the word, you’ve made a mistake. So I would advise both campaigns to do something new slogan-wise. Slogans can work. What you ideally want when you pick a slogan is something that the entire campaign can revolve around. It’s not going to change, and it, in a memorable fashion, says exactly what you want the voter to remember when he goes to vote. So “Believe in America” and “Forward” don’t tell you anything. “Hope” and “change”—that did tell you something. Obama built his whole campaign around that, and it was enormously successful. Now, Romney might want to build his around the opposite of “hope” and “change.” When there is an incumbent in the office, the race inherently is about the incumbent and his performance; it’s not about the challenger. You want to make the challenger acceptable and the incumbent unacceptable. And right now they are both trying to do that and it’s sort of a scramble.

Stay tuned for more from Fred Davis—and the Vanderbilt Ad Rating project—on the Model Politics blog with Sylvia Friedel.