With political contributions at all-time highs campaigns have more money than ever to spend on advertising. Despite this, many are having a harder time than ever getting their message across. The reason? Voters have lost faith in the candidates.
Regardless of party affiliation most voters have come to view politicians with suspicion. They’re skeptical of their claims, their character and their ability to deliver positive change.
So what’s a communications director to do? Well, many have resorted to a tried and true approach to getting their message out: using testimonials from regular people in their advertisements. The thinking goes that while voters may not believe politicians, they’re still willing to take the word of the "average people" who are their supports.
In this edition of Political Ad Wars we wanted to find out if this thinking still held true. In the face of record distrust – and even disgust – could constituent and supporter testimonials still break through and resonate with voters? Or does the distrust extend to the Average Joes, making testimonials a lost cause?
To find out we tested six recent television ads – five from congressional candidates and one from a Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney – with 150 Americans of various political stripes.
Here’s what we heard.
They’re (still) effective. Campaigns rely on testimonials for a good reason: they work. More than facts, figures and policy proposals, hearing how a candidate helped an individual or family has real emotional resonance with voters. Why? Well, there are a couple of reasons.
1 They don’t question the motives.
You might think voters would question who exactly was appearing in these ads and what their motivations areas. Well, you’d be wrong. To a person they found the supporters featured in these ads to be credible and sincere in their convictions.
2 They personalize the good candidates have done.
It’s widely accepted that charities trying to demonstrate the good they’ve done are best served by talking about the people they’ve helped rather than the dollars they’ve spent. Well, the same applies here. Personalizing the impact they’ve had makes it real for voters. Having a face to match up with a candidate’s efforts is worth more than all the statistics and factual backup in the world.
3 They also personalize the candidate him/herself.
Not only does this approach help to personalize the good they’ve done, it makes the candidate seem like a real person – something that’s harder than you might think. Voters who’ve been shown how a candidate has impacted an individual’s life end up seeing them in a more relatable, human way and not just as another cog in the Washington machine.
"The emotional, relatable anecdote really gets to you. The instance that this candidate has acted on behalf of his constituents instills confidence and trust in his abilities." – Democratic Voter
While we know voters like hearing from ordinary people, not all testimonials are created equal.
By definition the examples that candidates use are dramatic, but some are more dramatic than others. So which are most likely to get voters’ attention and pull at their heart strings? Here’s a primer.
Stories from the war. Not surprisingly testimonials from soldiers and their families have the biggest impact on voters. Few if any groups are held in higher esteem. And it shows. The two ads we tested that focused on soldiers and their family received the most enthusiastic response from our participants.
The always controversial Rep. Allen West (R) of Florida used testimony from a soldier who’d served under the congressman in the Army and spoke of how a decision by West to give him body armor saved his life. The soldier’s telling of this story was straightforward, but it resonated with voters because they found the soldier so credible and his story so heart wrenching.
"It’s the sincerity of the soldier. There’s no guile there." – Independent Voter
Don’t hide the emotions. To work these testimonials have to be emotionally resonant. That doesn’t mean that the people delivering them need to breakdown crying… but it doesn’t hurt.
The single most impactful ad we tested was from sitting congresswoman and senate candidate Shelley Berkley (D-NV) and featured a father talking about his son, a former Marine who served in Iraq and who’d died due to a drug overdose related to his post-traumatic stress. The ad was designed to highlight a bill Rep. Berkley had sponsored to help the mental health care provided to veterans, a bill that was named for the soldier in question.
Beyond touching on a tragic set of circumstances, much of the reason it moved voters was the emotion the father displayed.
"I grieve for this family, who lost their son… I’m glad that action has been taken to improve their post-combat care." – Independent Voter
Similarly, an ad by the Super PAC Restore Our Future supporting Mitt Romney benefited from the raw emotion shown by a former business partner talking about all he’d done to help find his missing daughter.
By contrast, an ad for Congressman Paige Kreegel (R-FL) featured a man talking about the kidnapping and murder of his late wife and the work Rep. Kreegel had done to ensure better training and certification was put in place for 911 operators, something that could have helped save his wife. The story is heartbreaking. And voters agreed the legislation that was passed did sound like a genuine improvement. However, voters did not have the same gut reaction to this ad that they did to some of the others and that is likely because the same degree of emotion was not displayed.
Don’t overdo it. Let’s be clear: voters believed all of the individuals that provided testimonials. But some did get turned off to certain details that seemed almost too good to believe.
The ad we tested for Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) featured a Montana family who’d run into problems adopting their daughter. Their story – and the Congressman’s role in helping make the adoption a success – was a moving one and voters reacted well to it. But while the ad was generally effective, many voters we spoke to thought it went too far. In the ad the father told the story of reaching out to the Congressman for help. He said Rep. Rehberg didn’t know them, but met with them on Thanksgiving Day to help them with their adoption. For many this was just too much. While they believed that he’d helped the family, they just didn’t find it credible that he’d take time on Thanksgiving to meet with a family of strangers – whatever the circumstances.
"I believe he helped them, but Thanksgiving?" – Republican Voter
So what did we learn? Well, testimonials are still a very effective way of cutting through the cynicism of voters. And the more dramatic, more emotional and, yes, more believable the testimony the greater impact campaigns are likely to have.
TV ads for testing were provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.