Opinion and Forefront

WAGNER: Political ads filtered by a 4-year-old

November 17, 2012

Jennifer WagnerWe don’t watch a lot of television in our house, but when it’s on, it’s almost always tuned to a news station or show.

I couldn’t pin down the exact date, but the questions probably started back in September.

“Mommy, is Richard Mourdock mean?”

The question from our 4-year-old daughter seemingly came out of nowhere. Then I looked up and saw the tail end of a negative ad against U.S. Senate candidate Joe Donnelly.

“No, honey, I don’t think he’s mean. He’s just trying to get elected.”

Thus began what turned into a protracted, two-month-long explanation of voting, campaign commercials, winning, losing and laws.

(An election primer for other parents of small children: People run for office to make the rules we follow. We vote in elections to pick the people we think will make the best rules. In order to win, people running for office pay lots of money to be on television all the time talking about rules they would make or rules the other person has made that they don’t like. We follow the rules so we don’t get sent to the grown-up version of the naughty chair.)

As a public relations consultant who works with both political and non-political clients, watching a preschooler’s reaction to campaign television spots was a fascinating study in what sinks in and what gets ignored.

When you’re selling a product or service, the pitch is often basic. For example: If you are hungry, eat a hamburger from XYZ Restaurant. It costs $3, and it’s delicious.

Politics is more complicated because you’re selling a person who wants to represent a group of other people but whose identity is defined by both his or her actions and stated beliefs.

You also have a much more elevated element of negativity in campaign advertising. Where you might see a “taste test” ad comparing the aforementioned hamburger to one from a competitor restaurant, you’ll probably never see an ad that says, “XYZ Restaurant’s hamburger tastes like rancid rat meat fried up with kitty litter and maggots on top.”

While it’s not fair to attribute a political win or loss to television advertising, a Pew Research Center study in late October found that cable, local and network news remain the most popular places people turn for campaign news. That makes them the three most logical places to run campaign advertising.

So, how did our focus group of one chatty preschooler rate Indiana’s 2012 campaign ads, and how did her picks stack up at the ballot box?

Of the millions spent in campaign advertising in the gubernatorial race, the only commercial that registered was John Gregg’s spot filmed at the Statehouse. Pressed for details, she said Gregg “looked nice.”

In the U.S. Senate race, her opinion of Mourdock as “mean” never wavered, and she frequently repeated Donnelly’s “my way or the highway” tag line for Mourdock’s agenda. She asked a couple of times why President Obama was in some of the ads, but she largely ignored the formulaic super-PAC-funded spots when they were on.

She fell in love with spots from congressman André Carson and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, but had little interest in watching Attorney General Greg Zoeller.

On election night, her favorites didn’t all equate to wins, but much of the messaging that stuck out to her wound up defining the high-profile races, specifically her early assessment of Mourdock and her feelings toward Carson, whose advertising pushed him well above the 60-percent mark.

Candidates don’t need to run their ads by preschoolers before buying time, but consultants could learn a lot about what connects by watching young children watch television. It’s a powerful medium that’s often at its most powerful when its messages reach us subconsciously.•

Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and founding principal of Mass Ave Public Relations, a local public relations and publicity firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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