10/31/2012 05:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dialing In Audiences' Reactions to Election Trash Talk


Courtesy: CNN

CNN pimped out my TV screen this 2012 presidential election season.

You name it, my digital dashboard had it all: the current debate question restated on screen; a running clock of the candidates' speaking time; a branded "Debate Night in America" graphic that rotated to the #cnndebate hashtag; a "Live CNN" logo; and as an added bonus, a split screen of two candidates vying for the nation's highest office.

But the most addictive armchair pundit navigation tool was the graph on the bottom of the screen that tracked a group of undecided voters' impressions of the candidate's words in real-time. This window's horizontal baseline served as neutral against men's opinions (conveyed by a moving green line) and women's opinions (a yellow line). If the "undecideds" liked what they heard, the line went above the baseline; if they didn't like, it dropped below. Stashed in a CNN greenroom was a sampling of the debate state's protected species of undecided voters -- the seeming arbiters of this presidential election. The on air result: a pair of gendered EKGs predicting each candidate's fitness for the Oval Office.

Audience Reaction in Real Time

This research technique is called dial testing and it works quite simply. While watching a film, ad or speech, a focus group viewer turns the dial to the right if they like what they see and to the left if they don't. The respondents' attitudes are merged into a single line for each group - in this case, of men and women. (Why did CNN parse the focus groups by gender and not by age or some other dyad? Because the gender wars are intrinsically theatrical and offer more lift to ratings.)

Dial testing stories, messages and people is used widely in entertainment, advertising, and messaging. It's how film directors and TV producers know where to insert explosions and car chases to satisfy men or determine the optimal anticipation before the inevitable kiss to make women happy. It's why scenes end up on the cutting room floor and why some film endings are disappointingly Hollywood. It also helps advertisers know which celebrity, jingle, or tagline their target audiences will respond to best. I've used it to understand audiences' attitudes about dramas and documentaries or to test promotional vehicles. Until recently, it's been a behind-the-scenes weapon of the art persuasion.


Courtesy: Nielsen

The 2012 Presidential Candidates Revealed

Now, out from behind the mirrowed glass window, dial testing is becoming a new form of popular media crack. Though exposed to it professionally for decades, I got strangely addicted to the recent public use of this voyeuristic ideological biorhythm. As a voter, I found it fun to watch during the boring bits of the debate and as a producer and media strategist, I found it revelatory. A few trends emerged from Florida's guinea pigs in this final 2012 presidential debate:

  • When a candidate presented their platforms and beliefs with words of hope and empathy, both men and women responded favorably, with women registering highest.
  • When candidates talked about boosting the economy or creating jobs, the lines peaked, underscoring Americans' most top-of-mind issue.
  • When the candidates talked tough about military or political enemies, the men reacted most favorably.

None of this is too surprising, but one result was fascinating:

  • When either candidate bashed their opponent's position on an issue, both the men and women's lines plummeted instantly. It happened every time, no matter the subject, and no matter how positive the previous reaction was to the candidate's platform on that issue.

It seems audiences don't like "trash talk." It makes us viscerally uncomfortable, perhaps because of evolutionarily rooted rubrics of kinship or perhaps because refrains of "doing unto others" from Mom echo in the back of our minds.

Still, we find it infinitely entertaining. To wit, Jerry Springer. It's prevalent in every presidential election and it survives for a reason. We know that candidate (brand) differentiation is essential to signaling value. And, as we learned from Dukakis' failed presidential bid, if you don't defend yourself when attacked, you're cooked. So the slugfest continues, but it puts in stark reveal the conflict between these two campaign messaging truths: negative advertising doesn't work, but if you don't do it you might be even worse off.

Horses, Bayonets and Stephen Colbert

The CNN focus group results from this week's Florida debate disclosed there's a sweet spot between attack dog assault and mamby pamby correction. What do we remember from this week's debate? What stands is Obama's sarcastic rejoinder to Romney's plaints of the U.S. having fewer battleships than in 1916, where he points out that we also have fewer horses and bayonets, and now we have "ships that go under water, nuclear submarines."

A direct attack on his opponent's grasp of military strategy, yet the men and women's reaction lines remained well above the baseline, sometimes peaking. Obama used wit, timing, sarcasm and a dose of condescension to annihilate his opponent. And he delivered his zingers in a relaxed and commanding manner without turning off the audience. Quite simply, he did a "Stephen Colbert." Obama's satiric response leveraged the currency of social media to become a memorable cultural meme for who Obama is and who Romney isn't. Whether one comment's afterlife is enough to get him reelected remains to be seen.

According to the squiggly lines from Florida's undecided voters across the entire debate, Obama will win. If so, maybe dial testing will become the new polling.

Dial Test Your Own Life

This glimpse into people's genuine perceptions made me wonder what my audience reaction lines would look like when I'm pitching media projects to broadcasters and producers, lecturing my college transmedia class, laying out weekend plans for my husband, or reminding my son all he must do to before he can play the Wii. I fear there would be a lot more valleys than peaks. If we could see people's feedback in real time, imagine how much we'd learn about how people truly perceive us. If a conversation goes badly, you could make a mid course correction until your lines soar or do a "Colbert" to satirize your way out of conflict. (Surely there's a SNL skit in this idea).

Sounds great in theory, but I wonder whether we want that much truth in our lives. It's so much nicer to just assume you're brilliant, respected, engaging, and affable -- while your audience's eyes glaze over.

Readers: We'd love to know how would you use dial testing in your life?