Ad Nauseam: Do Campaign Ads Really Work?

Why some political TV spots work — but most don't

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Linda McMahon's Ad

Although the 2010 election cycle has spawned more than 10,000 political ads on television, only a handful ever actually move voters. During the past eight months, I've conducted national polls and instant-response focus groups in 20 states in pursuit of the perfect political ad. From Boston to Los Angeles, I gave thousands of average voters the opportunity to react to thousands of ads, second by second, using handheld devices. My conclusion: voters don't like much of what they see. In the age of YouTube and cheap cable advertising, quantity has come at the expense of quality. Here's a quick guide to what works best — and what is backfiring badly.

Rule No. 1: Because Americans loathe most politicians, they love a candidate who hates the game. Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor in Florida, has nailed this contradiction. Fighting the Republican wave, she has run even with or ahead of her opponents because her ads decry the petty bickering that voters have come to despise. In one ad, she declares, "Partisanship: I've got no patience for it. Special interests? Nothing special about them to me." In another: "Don't know about you, but I have had just about enough of politicians attacking each other." Voters agree. Sink is the state's chief financial officer and is married to a former candidate for governor — in other words, she's an insider's insider — but you'd never know it from her ads.

Rule No. 2: Being anti-Establishment is important, but being anti-Washington is essential. Here's how incumbent Colorado Senator Michael Bennet navigated his very difficult Democratic primary in a year when being an incumbent is toxic: "I've been in Washington for only a year, but it didn't take that long to see the whole place is broken. It's time to give them a wake-up call. That's why I am for freezing congressional pay until we get our economy back on track. I think Senators and Congressmen should lose their own health insurance until they can stop insurance-company abuses. And I'd ban members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists."

Again, Bennet is the incumbent — appointed by political insiders, not elected — yet his language harnesses the outsider mood perfectly. His ad won't make him popular with his colleagues in Washington, and it may not keep him in office, but it has boosted his popularity in Colorado.

Rule No. 3: Straight talk works best. Few appeals land so well as a candidate talking directly to the camera. In fact, the closer a politician is to the lens, the better the reception. Why? When we can see candidates up close, warts and all, we tend to trust them more. Susana Martinez, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico, channels Dirty Harry in her bio spot, one of the best: "As a young prosecutor, I was called to testify against my boss. I could have looked the other way. But I didn't. I stood up to him, and he fired me for it. So I ran against him for DA and won. I don't back down to corruption. Never have." When she said that last line, a few viewers actually applauded.

Rule No. 4: "If I have to sacrifice, so should my representatives." That mantra means that voters will respond very negatively to any evidence that candidates benefited from special favors as a result of their position in government. Sharron Angle is closing her Nevada Senate campaign by attacking Harry Reid for becoming a millionaire on a Senator's salary and living in a Ritz-Carlton in Washington.

Rule No. 5: Fake doesn't sell. Connecticut GOP Senate candidate Linda McMahon spent more than $40 million of her own money, much of it on ads that often did her more harm than good. The most memorable featured two chatty women in a car talking about McMahon's job-creation capabilities. When one asked whether the other thought McMahon could shake things up in Washington, the two chirped in confected unison, "Oh, yeah." The response from viewers: Oh, no. No actors. Ever.

Rule No. 6: Be serious. This election is about a country and an economy in peril, yet some campaigns still trivialize the issues. Yes, mocking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes Republican voters laugh, but independents in my focus groups were angered. Turning Pelosi into a puppet or a 50-ft.-tall Godzilla monster does not work; talking specifics — bailouts, stimulus, health care and voting records — does. None of these ads help lawmakers solve our various ills. It's no wonder some people think more highly of used-car salesmen than of their representatives in Washington. But the inexorable cycle goes on, and soon enough another 10,000 ads will be heading our way. Next time, reach for the remote.

Luntz is the author of the forthcoming book Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary.