10/01/2012 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Political Ads: America's not really listening anymore

A maslansky luntz + partners initiative in collaboration with the Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group and SquareOff

A September 19th Politico story suggests that Governor Romney's "47 percent" remarks will have a small but negative effect on who will vote for him in November. While that may reflect the results of a Gallup poll, our own research on the nature of public opinion this election season suggests his remarks won't make much difference. Americans aren't really listening to what the candidates are saying anymore. Instead, they're just waiting to hear something that confirms their defense or hatred of the party speaking.

We tested 42 presidential and congressional advertisements with more than a thousand people nationwide. They identify as Republicans, Democrats, Independents. Conservatives, liberals and moderates. Our objective was to identify which arguments allow candidates to transcend party lines. What could a Democrat say to win over a moderate Republican, and vice versa? Turns out we're asking the wrong question. We should've asked, "what will it take to even listen?"

We did, of course, identify some things that work and don't work with the different audiences--and those are covered in other posts. But by and large, findings suggest ad dollars spent to win over "the other side" is money wasted. Tracking the moment-to-moment reactions of 200-400 people a week, we can pinpoint the exact moment in any ad where Republican and Democratic voters start to disagree with each other. It's not the moment a position or policy revealed, but the revelation of whom the ad supports.

Reds and Blues have identical positive reactions to this doctor, until the moment she says the new healthcare law "isn't fixing things." After that, Democrats hate everything she says, as much as Republicans love it.

The substance of an argument makes little difference. Democrats reject ads from Republicans the moment it's clear they're watching a Republican ad. Same on the other side. And by "completely reject," we don't mean "disagree with." We mean they tune it out. Hundreds of people say of opposing advertisements, "It's all lies."

"Nothing persuaded me...To declare the new system will [hurt the] doctor-patient relationship is an irresponsible lie...I hate it." -Participant

[NOTE: The "Independent" line in the attached dial clips represents the average of those who identify as conservative and liberal. Our sample of Independents skewed conservative, as does the line. But while the average of all Independents is more moderated, we found the comments of individual independents to be just as dismissive of the party they identified with less.]

The vitriol and dismissiveness should give us all pause. Negative reactions on both sides share one thing: they have little or nothing to do with the contents of a given ad. These responses are preprocessed, automatic.

Republicans approve of this absurd rhetoric from Chuck Norris. The more extreme it gets, the better. Democrats, to their credit, seem willing to concede there's something to the "get out to vote" message.

As for the few truly open-minded voters, they're more likely to be equally disenchanted with both sides. Worst of all, there's evidence voters CAN like a message from the other party--but only as long as they don't KNOW where the message comes from (yet).

If it's not clear what party the speaker in an ad supports, then substance matters--Democrats can like a Republican message and vice versa. The moment it becomes clear, one party reflexively loves the message, and the other party hates it.

Unless you're from coastal Virginia, you probably don't know what party Scott Rigell is from. This ad takes a policy stand without using langauge that shows party afilliation, and everyone likes it.

Political advertising is a medium long associated with dishonesty and cheap shots--not the most persuasive stuff. But today's ad wars are wasting ad dollars. The skyrocketing sums would be better spent on talking policy without mentioning any party or any hot-button political words. Or perhaps the best ROI of all is to simply use social media to try to target your faithful to vote in greater numbers. Because from what we've seen, that "moveable middle" is becoming smaller and a lot less movable.