If the outcome of the November general election were based solely on the impact of the candidates' Olympics ads, John McCain would defeat Barack Obama, according to research just out from Nielsen IAG.
But fortunately for Obama, ads seen during the Games were just a small fraction of the overall exposure the candidates are receiving from numerous consumer touch points and media channels, including spot TV (where most of the estimated $800 million in presidential campaign ads will be placed), cable, print, in-person and other public relations events, direct mail, the Web and so forth.
In the Olympics, both McCain and Obama spent between $5-6 million on ads, NBC has confirmed.
And according to the analysis by Nielsen IAG, based on responses of 1,600 likely general election voters who tuned in to the Beijing Games, McCain's Olympic ads were tops in what the research firm labels "breakthrough" (essentially aided recall), candidate recall, effectiveness in communicating the basic message and intent-to-vote increase.
According to David Kaplan, svp, research and product development at Nielsen IAG (a unit of Adweek parent the Nielsen Co.), breakthrough, the primary objective of just about all ads, is driven first and foremost by creative quality. That said, Kaplan stressed that "some of the [Obama] work was successful and our data would have suggested that he continue using it."
The analysis also found that McCain's negative ad, entitled "Celebrity," was effective, although a significant minority of those polled were repulsed by it.
The research focused on four ads, two from each candidate. McCain's "Celebrity" ad, the one negative commercial in the batch, portrayed Obama as an empty-headed celebrity lacking in substantive ideas. The ad broke through by a margin of 18 percentage points higher than Obama's best scoring ad, and with a communication effectiveness rating of 90 percent, also far exceeding Obama's ads.
But there was also significant backlash for McCain from the "Celebrity" ad. While 17 percent said they had a lower opinion of Obama after seeing the ad, and 22 percent said they'd be more likely to vote for McCain, 27 percent said they'd be less likely to vote for McCain after seeing his negative ad.
"While it turned off many viewers, it wasn't enough to negate the overall gain McCain received by using the ad," said Kaplan. On average, the two McCain ads that were surveyed -- "Celebrity" and "Washington's Broken" -- had 52 percent recall among those polled, compared to 40 percent recall for Obama's two ads, "Hands That Built This Nation" and "It Begins With a Plan."
Obama scored higher points in a single key metric, likeability, although neither candidate came close to the Olympic likeability average of 58 percent. Forty-five percent of respondents said they liked Obama's ads; 33 percent said they liked McCain's. Like the Super Bowl, the ad industry sets the creative bar a lot higher for Olympic spots. And ads tend to focus on themes such as competitive spirit, sportsmanship and other uplifting Olympic ideals. On the likeability scale, it's harder for political ads to compete in that arena.
But ultimately Obama's ads couldn't overcome McCain's ads' huge lead in general recall, which translated to a net boost in intent to vote for McCain of 10 percent compared to a 7 percent lift for Obama. While 3 percent may not seem like much of an edge, "it's a meaningful difference from our perspective in terms of viewers walking away more likely to vote for McCain," said Kaplan.
The silver lining for Obama: looking at just the undecided voters in the survey the net impact was virtually the same for both McCain's and Obama's ads. McCain still had a commanding lead in breakthrough, but Obama was stronger on driving intent among viewers who remembered his advertising.