Insights Blog

May 26th, 2016

Why [most] PAC ads fail

Author

Peter Daboll

If the viewing population doesn’t particularly like ads in general, they are particularly averse to the political variety. How do we know? At Ace Metrix, we gauge the creative impact of all national ads using the Ace Score as a holistic measure of an ad’s effectiveness. The average Ace Score across all commercial nationally advertised brands is 546; in contrast, political and PAC ads together score a much lower average Ace of 446. PAC ads alone score even lower with an Ace Score of 430.

Yet the PAC coffers continue to build. According to a recent Washington Post article, PACs have already raised over $600 million in this cycle, and are expected to eclipse the $828 million raised in 2012. While some PAC ads are extraordinarily successful, on average they fall short. The range is high – even within a PAC, there is large inconsistency in ad effectiveness. This “spray and pray” mentality by the PACS shows little regard for (or knowledge of) what might actually be working. The technology exists to ensure each ad is successful in achieving their objective. PACs have the money, just not the discipline – PACs with the lowest performing ads shoveled close to $150 million into campaigns that are now defunct. Coincidence?

So why do (most) PAC ads fail?

Reason #1: Inside out messaging and assuming people are going to watch

Probably the biggest mistake, this is where the 2016 race poses new challenges for PACs. In a study conducted by Ace Metrix and Twitter, 50 percent of people who choose to watch an ad drop off after 5 seconds… and that’s not even counting the people who don’t choose to start the ad. The way ads communicate a PAC’s message often comes down to too much ego and not enough empathy. It’s an inside out approach, all about the message they want to push onto the viewer—not respecting the fact that today’s viewer can and will CHOOSE to participate (or not) with a message.

Take, for example, an ad from the pro-Rubio PAC Conservative Solutions. “Calculated” was an attack on Ted Cruz, where they flipped Cruz’ campaign logo to “Calcula- TED” instead of “Trust-TED.” This ad was so confusing that viewers thought it was pro-Cruz. Just because a PAC likes an attack ad doesn’t mean viewers will get it. And if the ad doesn’t make a compelling case to keep the viewer watching past the first 3-5 seconds, it will be dropped—no matter how important you think your PAC’s message is. You’ve just wasted that spend.

Reason #2: Mistaking volume for quality

Most of the typical PAC ads don’t break through the clutter… in fact they ARE the clutter. Since the beginning of the year, PACS have aired about 200 ads. Pro-Rubio PACs produced more than 40 ads in the first two months of the year alone; however, our research found that some of the lowest scoring ads actually came from his camp. In fact, the ten worst PAC ads this year were sponsored by Rubio or Bush PACs, both candidates no longer in the race. More ads won’t get more viewers or impact voter behavior, better ads will.

Reason #3: Inconsistent/unfocused messaging

In advertising, less is more. In the best brand campaigns, marketers focus on repetition of an effective but simple message to become memorable to the viewer –to persuade them to take action or change their perception. Many PAC campaigns do just the opposite. Often PACs air dozens of ads with different messaging, with low frequency. One and done. These ads, even if they are good, don’t have the opportunity to build viewer persuasion over time.

It’s hard enough to produce one good ad let alone dozens. The anti-Trump Our Principles PAC has produced a gaggle of ads this year, with ad performance ranging from very good (555 ad for “Quotes”) to really bad (373 for “Democrat”). The cause would be better served by placing higher scoring ads more frequently in the media rotation rather than creating more and more ads. Why waste media costs airing inconsistent, bad ads?

Reason #4: Trying to attack earned media with paid media

While a message needs to be consistent, it also needs to be perceptive and strategically aware. This is a particularly unique cycle with social media playing an important role. Donald Trump seems to specialize in “earned media” – media attention that he doesn’t pay for. Paid media attacking Trump’s positions and statements have been largely unpersuasive—in fact many have downright backfired. When you have a candidate that is being portrayed as a reckless outsider who is not politically correct, and you run an ad accusing him of these traits, this actually validates viewer beliefs and helps the candidate with voters who support him for those very reasons. Not the intended effect at all.

Reason #5: Trying to communicate with reason vs. emotion

“Quotes”, was a brilliantly executed example of how to get attention and connect with viewers emotionally. This ad did not connect with viewers on a rational or intellectual level, or try to shove policy opinion down the viewer’s throat. Rather, by highlighting Trump’s own words about women, read by everyday women that could be the viewer’s own mother or sister, it was able to connect with viewers on an emotional level (a negative one at that).

Granted, not all people agree with the ad, which is the very nature of political advertising. What it did do, however, was convince the viewer to continue watching and as a result, earned the highest Attention Score (715) of this political season. It’s important to remember that people remember what they feel – just think about Coke—it’s not about attributes of the brown sugar water, it’s all about how drinking Coke makes you feel.

Reason #6: Being unaware of what is working

Overly focused on pushing out their own message, PAC ads are often oblivious to the strategic insight that can be gained on what’s working with voters. Take, for example, anti-Trump ads. The aforementioned “Quotes” was particularly successful with women. Several spots from the Republican PAC American Future Fund focused on Trump University, which delivered high scores. However, other anti-Trump ads came across as overly negative and suspect because voters have a strong distrust of smear campaigns. There is a difference between an effective attack ad and an ineffective smear.

To best support their end cause, PACs would be better off taking note of the full spectrum of ads on the airwaves and studying the nuances that can turn a waste of money into an effective spend.

Reason #7: Failure to connect with YOUR Political Brand

What good is an emotional or memorable ad if the viewer can’t identify who or what the ad is even supporting? PACs are often guilty of this, broadcasting ads attacking a particular candidate but not indicating who the ad supports. When asked “who is this ad about” some of the highest scores are for the candidate being attacked, particularly Trump. The irony is that negative attack ads can actually build positive candidate sentiment in voters. Sometimes even negative attention is effective.

Moreover, viewer verbatims indicate voters often discount the information provided in ads where it is unclear who the sponsor is. If they can’t figure out who’s behind the curtain, they tune out.

The lack of transparency is a double hit—distrust of the message being delivered, and suspicions of who’s behind it. Let’s faced it, many voters don’t know what a PAC even is. As a result, when voters see an ad that features one candidate but smears another, viewers blame the candidate for negative advertising, hurting that candidate’s image far more than the one being smeared. Either way, PACs aren’t getting the result they intended.

Reason #8: Not adopting a “test and learn” culture

The “my way or the highway” culture is prevalent in PAC ads. Like-minded individuals, or the largest donor, decide if an ad is fit to air. But as we’ve seen, messages have a funny way of landing on viewers in unintended ways. PACs need to recognize that their views may not represent those of the general public and that the way they communicate these views can negate their potential impact. Most ads that are unsuccessful have not been adequately tested. It’s as simple as that.

A better way?

No one starts the process with the goal of producing an ad that is ineffective. Political ads begin with the challenge of having more polarizing topics. PACs too often only focus on the message they want to push out, not the receptivity of the audience. Our data shows time and again that great creative storytelling works, but

this mentality of inside-out messaging is the death of attention—with the resulting ad one that people will just ignore, skip or change the channel.

It is not a walk in the park to get it right though. An ad can be visually attractive and likeable and still not deliver a relevant message. Alternatively, an ad can deliver a message, but not in a way that will persuade or change behavior. The only way to ensure an ad is going to achieve your goal is to test, learn from what the data (and viewers) are telling you, and try again.

The American people aren’t gullible or stupid. A PAC’s message has to be just as important, relevant and convincing as the best brand ads to warrant our attention. PACs have the money to bring us more effective ads…the question is, can they develop the discipline? No matter what you are advertising, if you want your message to be effective, you must remember it’s not about you, it’s about the viewer.

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