A survey of California residents during the gubernatorial recall election shows diminished faith in political advertising when it traditionally peaks—as Election Day draws near. And the Golden State contest may be an indicator of how media, advertising and voters interact in the next presidential elections.
In the survey, conducted over the Internet by Interpublic Group's Initiative Media, almost half of the 300 respondents said on Sept. 30 that they were less reliant on political ads as a source of information than when the campaign launched in August. Inititiative speculates this is due to growing disenchantment with negative ads.
In fact, more than six out of 10 respondents to the survey, which tracked changing attitudes toward paid and unpaid political media communication starting Sept. 12 and ending Sept. 30, said negative ads make them feel less positive about the candidate running the ad rather than the attack target.
Forty-four percent said campaign ads have had less impact on their opinions than in the past, with only 16 percent claiming a greater effect. And more than three-quarters of respondents (77 percent) said they were not persuaded by free-media opportunities, such as appearances on talk shows. Perhaps not surprisingly, 46 percent felt that shows such as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, where Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy, focus too much on trivia.
Still Initiative's survey found a "blurring of a distinction between what is information and what is entertainment," said David Ernst, Initiative's evp of futures and technologies. "Getting exposure is the big thing, whether it is paid or unpaid. We saw Arnold Schwarzenegger growing and extending after his talk show appearance, then using the debate to seal the deal."
But the debate tended to have little effect on opinion, with only 7 percent saying they were swayed by the Sept. 24 event.
"Candidates who use nontraditional forms of communications play into the disenchantment with the status quo," added Ernst. But, he said, "surprisingly, TV is still strong. Internet is not pushing TV out of its predominant role."
TV and the Web work in tandem, explained Pamela Marsh, research manager for Initiative. "We found a lot of cross-platforming and multitasking," she said, noting that 40 to 50 percent of respondents had referenced a Web site to which they were directed by television.
"The study is a good barometer for how the media will probably cover the 2004 campaign, as well as how candidates and voters will rely on the media to connect with one another," said Marsh. "Voters are relying less and less on the packaged information that comes directly from the candidates and more on cable and network news and the Internet, as driven by television information."
More than a third of respondents said they pay less attention to most forms of political advertising than they did 10 years ago, including billboards/transit (42 percent), commercials (38 percent) and pamphlets (33 percent). Meanwhile, 20 percent of respondents said they turned to network news more than in the past, with cable news following at 18 percent.
And while more than one of four said they rely less on TV talk shows for information about candidates, Bill Hillsman, chief creative and political specialist at North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, noted that the survey may not reflect how a shrinking audience for political information warms up to candidates. "The independents who are sick of Washington politics are not going to the cable TV talk shows but to the hipper late-night shows," said Hillsman, whose client, Arianna Huffington, dropped out of the race last week. "Morning news used to be soft news, and now they're becoming more like entertainment, and they're great vehicles for candidates. Meanwhile, the interviews on The Daily Show, which are supposed to be entertainment, actually do more substantive reporting than the evening news."