What Today’s Swing State Voters Can Teach the Campaigns of Tomorrow
(NEW YORK) -- Focus groups in hotly-contested states such as North Carolina and Iowa were assembled to learn about changing television viewing habits and how it will affect political advertising during the 2014 campaign season and beyond -- from being careful about text message advertising to being completely sick of negative commercials.
The focus groups, conducted by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies and Democratic firm Global Strategy Group, were held in Charlotte and Des Moines with ten participants each and revealed the move away from traditional TV watching to viewing with the use of DVRs and Netflix. In addition, people are doing less traditional TV ad viewing and voters do their own research online about potential candidates.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse distilled their challenge, noting they must figure out how to "still get a message across" and "break through" when voters don't want that message or are not tuning in to television the way they used to.
Here are some suggestions to campaigns from the 20 voters in two focus groups:
1. Stop the Negative Advertising
This is one campaigns are likely to ignore, but both focus groups overwhelmingly rejected all types of negative advertising. This may not be breaking news, especially to admakers and voters, but the groups seemed very much in touch with what they hated and what they want to see more of when it comes to political advertising. Their message was loud and clear: stop the attack ads.
Bill, a middle-aged realtor from North Carolina, was especially critical when it came to early negative advertising, calling it "ludicrous to bash one senator right after the election."
"The election is a year away," he said. "Do you have extra money to spend?"
Angela, a middle-aged translator and interpreter, also from North Carolina, described the negative ads she sees as a "very simplistic ... picture" of candidates aimed at targeting the "emotional state of a person."
"I thought they were treating me like an idiot," she said.
Sheila, a middle-aged woman who does disability education, also in the Charlotte group, called the ads "intentionally misleading" and "always done with a slant."
Bill told the group he pulled out his tablet and tried to do an instant fact check when he saw a negative ad against a candidate he favored, saying he tried to "verify it," but found it was "totally taken out of context."
"It really turned me off more than anything," he said.
The Des Moines group was even more cynical towards negative advertising. They are possibly some of the most inundated in the country since they are home to the presidential caucuses every four years.
Christy, a woman who works in the restaurant industry, summed up how she feels about political advertising, saying, "They are always making the other guy look bad."
"All they do is bad-mouth each other," Robin, a middle-aged woman who works in the communications industry, added. "They aren't saying what they are for."
Rachel, a young woman who works in the insurance industry, said the ads often use "inflammatory language," and, looking almost physically exhausted from the amount of advertising, said, "We are so tired of hearing the negative...they never speak to the issues."
Jeff, who also works in the insurance industry, agreed, saying they are "aimed at a lower intelligence level."
2. What They Want to See in Ads
Both groups want to see more positive advertising, but they also had more specific ideas about what they want to view, stressing they want candidates to "cite the facts."
Angela said she wants to "hear what they do well. I don't want to hear what they think of the other person," explaining that she would like ads to list characteristics on different policy viewpoints, noting they should detail "she voted this way or that way and you can trust her."
Steven, a young financial consultant, wants the candidates to own up to past mistakes, noting they should say, "This is what we have done to improve," adding that kind of acknowledgment would create an "individual relationship with the person you wouldn't have had before."
"That means you can admit to your mistakes," he said. "Everyone makes mistakes."
Bill said he subscribes to candidates on Facebook, and there he likes that he can choose to "click on it or not to click on it," referring to ads.
Shelly, a homemaker and mother to five children in the Des Moines group, very much wants positive ads, noting the "truth wins every time."
3. Be Careful of Text Messaging Ads
Both groups reeled when discussing the idea of getting candidate ads in the form of text messages to their smartphones -- a form of advertising expected to grow -- even if they didn't have to pay for them, stressing they have more personal information on their smartphones than any other device.
Janice, a middle-aged homemaker in the North Carolina group, described herself as a "very private person" and a text message ad would "turn me away more if they were reaching out to me that way."
Rachel, from Des Moines, called it her "safe zone" and said she thinks of her mobile devices more as tools for fun and entertainment than anything else so an ad on her smartphone would feel like "an invasion."
Zac Moffatt, founder of the Republican digital advertising firm Targeted Victory, noted their research shows the "smaller the screen, the more personal the device" is viewed as by the owner, adding "if you get it wrong" you risk "alienating" the voter and that's why "targeted" advertising of this kind is key.
"It is risk versus reward, you have to be really good," he said. "If you blast (out text advertising) you could really hurt your campaign" and that "spray approach" to ads could be "really bad for campaigns."
Newhouse agreed, saying: "We've got to tread carefully."
4. Get Ready to Toss Out the TV
Moffatt said with less people watching live TV, it is their job to find new ways to reach potential supporters and one of those ways is when voters are doing their own candidate research online, something the majority of participants said they do.
"At the end of the day Democrat or Republican, we want to win and we need to get in front of them," Moffat said.
Although many in the groups gathered still watched television, most used DVR to zip through commercials (one participant noting "except for the Super Bowl") and to watch on their own time using streaming services instead of traditional television. The exceptions were sports, local news, and in some cases cable news. And almost all were seeing a lot less advertising than in years past.
When Janice was asked about what one of the best things technology brought to her life she put it succinctly: "You can watch an hour TV show in 35 minutes."
And Rebecca, a homemaker over the age of 55 in the Charlotte group, says she will have cable news on in the background while cooking dinner, but after dinner she tunes into her DVR.
Michael, a young IT analyst in the Charlotte group who works from home, says his viewing regimen is "entirely Netflix," noting the first time he had seen ads in a long time were this year's Winter Olympics, which his wife watched.
Rachel, from Des Moines, even said she was "considering canceling cable" because "usually I can find it on the Internet."
5. But When People Are Watching It's Two (or More) Screens
Several participants in the focus groups said when they are watching television, live or pre-recorded, they are often on their smartphones as well or "multi-tasking" as Jeff put it.
Rachel said she scrolls through her smartphone checking social media sites like Pinterest while watching because "it's boring watching TV sometimes" and Sheila despite describing herself as a social media newbie admitted to checking her Facebook page on her smartphone while tuning in.
Shelly acknowledged that it does depend what kind of show and whether she has "seen the show or not" and if it's gripping.
Anthony, a young artist in the Des Moines group, said he rarely watches any kind of TV -- and when he does he is definitely multi-tasking.
"Usually I'm doing a lot of work on my computer, social media on my tablet, and emails on my phone," he said. "I always have all three right in front of me."
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