More Effective Political Ads

“Just because your ad looks good is no insurance that it will get looked at. How many people do you know who are impeccably groomed…but dull?” –William Bernbach

As we approach the liveliest part of the political cycle a raft of ads will hit the airwaves and the mailboxes.  A mailer may only get a couple of seconds to capture the interest of a voter.  The real question is: how to maximize the chance that they will notice the message and spend enough time with the piece to internalize the message about the target candidate or issue?

Many people approach design by feel.  Asserting they understand people and what it takes to get their attention.  The results are very clever, good looking pieces — even Pollie Award winning good—but it is not certain they are effective in having the desired impact on voters toward a candidate or issue.

Eye tracking is an excellent technique to see exactly what is (and is not) noticed and how much attention components of a piece are getting.  If the voter doesn’t look at the key images or words, then the piece fails to deliver its message.  The benefit of eye tracking over other techniques such as focus groups is the response is automatic for the voter.  They do not have to recall what they looked at nor are they influenced to follow another member of the group or respond in ways that please the interviewer.  Eye tracking provides that critical first few seconds of information—where do they look first and then where do they go next?  Where do voters linger longest?

More specific questions can be addressed as well.  Do voters pay more attention to text or images?  This effects whether designs should be more text or image heavy.  We recently completed an eye tracking study of Republican voters.  Regardless of education level completed or socio-economic background, we found that the image of a face gets attention from these voters rapidly.  Faces are either the first or second component of a mailer that gets attention. Interestingly, faces are also among the last components to get attention.  This is because as a voter forms a sense of the whole mailer and its meaning, they coalesce that impression around the principle face in the mailer.  The face serves as the mnemonic to recall the mailer as a whole.

The overall impression of the mailer, however, comes not from the images, but more from the text. The images serve to reinforce the message of the text. In other words, text matters. Regardless of gender, age, or level of conservatism, the Republicans who participated in our recent study all read the mailers carefully. Participants read the text almost immediately. It did not matter whether the text was in the form of paragraphs, bullets, or boxed text.

Reading of text went from the text at the top of the page to the bottom. When there was a columnar aspect to the text layout, respondents put more attention on the left-hand column followed by reading the text in the right-hand column. An additional interesting outcome is the “Paid for by” information that accompanies many pieces. This bit is usually in smaller type and tucked at the bottom or corners of the pieces. So, does anyone really notice it? Yes, they do! Nearly all the respondents in our study looked at this information when it was presented. Some respondents went out of their way to apologize feeling like they were failing the test, because they always like to read that part of a print ad. In reality, a majority of the respondents looked at the “Paid for by” message.

Understanding how voters are consuming presented information could be pivotal to candidate success. In the high paced political realm, often testing and measuring of an ad prior to launch is forgotten. The most successful political campaigns use well thought out and tested ads to convert citizens into voters.


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