WASHINGTON -- As the presidential campaign kicks into high gear and tens of millions of dollars worth of political ads flood the airwaves in swing states, one question sticks out: How effective are 2012's political ads, really?
Amid massive advertising buys and dueling campaign war rooms, a team from Vanderbilt University and a market research firm YouGov have set out to determine just how much the presidential campaign ads of this election cycle are influencing American voters.
"The Vanderbilt You/Gov Ad Rating Project is a new effort to access, analyze and in some sense to describe the many ads that are appearing everyday to the American public," said John Geer, chair of Vanderbilt's political science department, in an introductory video. "It's important because we have an amazing amount of advertisements that are appearing and people, especially journalists, want to evaluate them, the public wants to know about them, and we don't really have a systematic reliable way to evaluate them."
Unlike traditional opinion sampling methods that rely on telephone surveys or in-person focus groups, the Vanderbilt/YouGov effort allows respondents to view the ad online immediately prior to taking a survey. Respondents then have the opportunity to rate the ad they've just seen. Surveyors pay special attention to emotional aspects of the ads, including whether the spot made a viewer feel hopeful or angry.
"Here we actually expose the actual ad to a representative sample of Americans and then they can tell us what they think about it," said Geer. "And that's actually at one level so obvious, but it hasn't been able to be done prior because you didn't have the YouGov technology."
President Barack Obama's ad "America the Beautiful" for example, in which Mitt Romney's rendition of the patriotic song plays as news reports accusing the Republican candidate of outsourcing and holding offshore bank accounts flash on screen, made 8 percent of respondents feel "hopeful," while 48 percent felt "disgusted." (The question did not specify a target for respondents' disgust.) As would be expected, 87 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats felt the negative ad was "unfair."
This immediate and in-depth analysis of individual political ads, just beginning to emerge from backroom campaign analysis and into the public domain, aims to further inform academic research and the decisions of those responsible for creating and placing ads that maximize donor dollars. While analysis of the emotional and social dimensions in such ads may seem trivial, experts said such information is crucial in targeting key constituencies that swing elections.
"It is phenomenally difficult to measure with precision what the effect of advertising is," said Ken Goldstein, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group during a Brookings Institution panel discussion on political advertising Monday. "But advertising very, very much matters at the margin."
While targeting specific demographics by presidential campaigns is nothing new, the focus on new technology and efforts such as the Vanderbilt/YouGov team highlight the seriousness of the data "arms race" between the Obama and Romney campaigns. "I would check your website," Goldstein told the Vanderbilt/YouGov team leaders, Geer and Stanford University professor Doug Rivers. "I bet you'll get some hits from Boston and Chicago."
CORRECTION: Ken Goldstein's title is president of Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, not president of Kantar Media.