As I was watching the first presidential debate in Denver and following my social media feeds, it soon became apparent which sound bites would be morphed into political ads. Governor Romney’s now ubiquitous “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS. I like Big Bird,” statements exploded into a host of parody Twitter accounts, internet memes and eventually an online attack advertisement.
The Romney campaign also used debate footage to attack President Obama, showing a downcast close-up of Obama as Romney criticized his tax plan.
The second presidential debate was subject to similar hyper-focus on popular sites – once again, a Romney quote got the internet treatment. “Binders Full of Women” has inspired a Tumblr site, and a Facebook page with nearly 350,000 likes to date.
Ease of information dissemination has no doubt revolutionized the political advertising world – this summer, mere hours after President Obama stated, “the private sector is doing fine,” in the White House Press Room, the statement was clipped and featured in a variety of internet and eventually television spots.
However, as Iyengar, Hahn, Krosnick and Walker argue in “Selective Exposure to Campaign Communication: The Role of Anticipated Agreement and Issue Public Membership,” that with the vast increase in media sources, voters now have the ability to selectively expose themselves to campaign materials, and/or tune-in only to their preferences or not at all. In addition to this change, Kreiss and Barnard draw attention to declines in live television viewership, pushing advertising monies into online outlets.
These online outlets can also specifically target impressionable voters, using fuzzy logic marketing techniques to aggregate search data and watch history to tailor ad campaigns to users. The television streaming site Hulu asks which “ad experience you prefer,” allowing a selection of ads within the same campaign to watch. Where campaigns and super PACs would once spend tens of millions of dollars to broadcast on major television networks, organizations can now release a controversial ad on YouTube or other sites, knowing it will be picked up by news outlets and receive the desired coverage. PACs have capitalized on studies suggesting viewers seem to not recall the fact-check of an advertisement, but rather the controversial nature of its content. Online mediums have made it easier and less expensive to broadcast these political ads.
Kreiss and Barnard point out political ads seek to engage already sympathetic viewers by inciting donations or increased involvement, attempting to influence those at the margins rather than encouraging dramatic ideology shift. Though they encourage more research in the behavioral goals of political advertising, the content of these ads appears to back this up.
Political advertising is always represented in turning points or the defining memories of exams – from the little flower girl Johnson ad to Willie Horton to the Swiftboat campaign. Super PACs have saturated the media markets for nearly a year. As the countdown to Election Day falls under the three week mark, the most hard-hitting ads will surely be aired.