They Approve This Message, But Does It Matter?

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

Since the passage of McCain-Feingold in 2002 candidates have been required to indicate their support for the content of their television and radio advertisements.

The provision responsible for this change is known as the “Stand By Your Ad” and its passage has led to the words “I approve this message” being heard countless times by millions of Americans. But while this phrase has become a familiar staple of American politics, to date there hasn’t been much work done to understand what impact the message – and the way it’s delivered – has on voters. We wanted to change that.

To that end we tested a series of current ads by the Obama and Romney campaigns. The testing was done in person with 30 registered voters in New York and online with over 150 voters from across the country.

We wanted to see what, if any, impact these so-called “sponsor messages” have when delivered in different ways.

What we found was surprising.

1 For a segment of voters, sponsor messages DO matter.

These messages don’t matter to a lot of voters. Many tune them out. And across the board their importance pales in comparison to the other content in ads. But for a segment of the electorate, sponsor messages do have an impact.

One of the most important reasons for this is that in many ads the sponsor message is only the time voters hear directly from the candidate themselves. As a result, some voters actually take cues from the way a candidate’s approval is conveyed to determine how sincere they were about the ad’s content and whether the candidate truly stands by it. As a result these “canned” phrases can disproportionately affect how persuaded voters are by an advertisement.

“When you actually see them saying it you can tell they agree with what the ad is saying.”- Democratic voter

“It’s when you get to hear them in their own words.”- Republican voter

“I wish we’d hear the candidates say more than the canned sponsor message.”- Republican voter

2 Presentation makes the difference.

Candidates have gotten more creative with the sponsor messages in recent cycles. But while there are many variations, presentation styles generally come in three varieties:

  • Standalone voiceover: voiceover with a still image of the campaign logo or related imagery
  • Voiceover over candidate’s image: voiceover over unrelated images of the candidate himself/herself
  • Direct address: the candidate delivering the message directly into the camera

Do voters have a preference? Absolutely. While direct addresses and even voiceovers over a candidate’s message may take up valuable real estate in a 30 second or 60 second spot, they’re more persuasive. Even just seeing a candidate’s image during the voice over can help leave the impression that they do endorse what’s being communicated.

“Show me a video of the candidate convincingly stating his approval.”- Republican voter

3 A direct address is the most convincing approach.

Ideally voters want to see candidates speak directly into the camera and give their approval. As a Republican voter in our session in New York said, “You get the sense that they’re approving that commercial – it’s not just some endorsement they use for everything.”

“I want it to blend in with each ad and I want it to sound like it was recorded separately with each ad. I don’t like the ones where it looks like it’s stuck on at the end and not a part of the ad. It makes me think that the candidate had given a blanket approval to any ad that is made.”- Democratic Voter

“Look into the eyes of the viewer. Walking on the beach or strolling along does not engage me, the viewer. I want to see them look into my eyes and tell the truth if they can.”- Republican Voter

4 Imagery matters.

For ads that don’t employ a direct address, the imagery used can have a real impact on voters. They want to see the candidates themselves. Beyond that, the right images to use depends entirely on what the candidate in question and what they need to portray to voters. According to the voters we spoke to, each campaign has chosen wisely.

  • - For Obama it’s all about leadership.
At this point it’s familiar to many of us. The image of President Obama strolling through the White House on his way to the Rose Garden has been used in a number of ads this campaign season. It’s a shot that’s designed to demonstrate strength, leadership and poise. And according to the voters we spoke with it’s working. At least for those who are open to supporting him.

“He looks very presidential walking along the portico.”- Democratic voter

“Image of him walking in White House is pretty powerful.”- Independent Voter

“The image of him walking in slow motion at the White House as though he is comfortable and in charge and confident stands out as negative because he totally is not competent or trustworthy as President.”- Republican Voter

  • - Romney as family man.
It was no mystery to voters what the Romney campaign was trying to convey with their choice of imagery: Mitt Romney is a family man. The shots of the former Governor walking with his family sought to humanize the candidate and in general they seemed to work.

“Romney [should] keep sounding genuine and let the photos be of him smiling and with his family.”- Independent Voter

“The black and white family shot in a field works well to remove the corporate stigma.”- Democratic Voter

“The image is a canned picture – like most candidates – of a happy family man and adoring husband. It’s too political.”- Democratic Voter

Interestingly we did also hear from some voters that the disconnect between the content of Romney’s attack ads and the image of him strolling with his family was unsettling. Seeing the former Governor smiling and walking with his family at the end of an ad attacking Obama’s handling of the economy caused some to question whether it conveyed the wrong message: that he was disconnected from the seriousness of the situation he himself laid out.

“The entire ad is based on the hardships of the economy, yet the end statement has a candidate happily strolling with his family. Makes me feel like he is as unconnected to the problems with the economy as the ad is trying to say about Obama.”- Independent Voter

Many political watchers may suspect that voters’ eyes glaze over the second they hear “I’m Barack Obama” or “I’m Mitt Romney.” But for many that isn’t the case. These so-called “canned” phrases have come to have a real impact on how political advertisements land with their targets.

TV ads for testing were provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Michael Maslansky (@m_mas) is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a language strategy and research firm, and author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.

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