Free Media Is Far More Influential Than Paid Media

And outrageous attacks on "character" and personality produce a greater impact than being reasonable.

Ever since Dean's downfall and Jerome's insightful reports on the rapidly reduced power of television advertisements, I have gradually become convinced that the way a candidate's personality is treated by the national media has far more impact on the outcome of an election than fundraising and paid advertisements. The National Annenberg Election Survey recently completed a study (PDF) of the reach of the Swift Boat Liars ad that backs my belief:

Backed by a small time buy in a few states, a TV advertisement sponsored by a 527 called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began airing on August 5, 2004. The ad claimed that John Kerry lied to obtain his Viet Nam War medals. A news account in the New York Times indicated that the group intended to spend $500,000 to put the ad on stations in Wisconsin, Ohio, and West Virginia. Though according the article, an aide for the Kerry campaign disputed these figures arguing that the buy "was far smaller, for only $156,000 in seven smallish markets."

In a dramatic illustration of the power of free media such as talk radio and cable talk shows to assist an independent group in getting its message out, recent polling by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey finds that more than half of the country has heard about or seen the ad. Thirty-three percent of a national sample of respondents report having seen it and an additional 24 percent report having heard about it. These findings are based on polling of 2,209 respondents between August 9 and August 16, 2004. The margin of error for this sample is plus or minus 2 percent.

"The influence of this ad is a function not of paid exposure but of the ad's treatment in free media," Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the survey and of The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center explained. "The advertisement has received extensive coverage, particularly on conservative talk radio and cable news channels and has been the subject of some attention in broadcast news as well."

The study goes on to note that the ad has had very little impact upon those people who were not already planning on voting Bush, which is good news. Only 19% of those people who hold a favorable opinion of Kerry found the ads believable, whereas 14% of those people who held a favorable opinion of Bush found the ads unbelievable. While this may result in Bush closing the favorability gap by one or two points (it is currently around 15 points in Kerry's favor), overall, as Jerome notes below, the impact does not seem that serious.

Still, why did this ad work so well in attracting free media? After all, $500,000 or less might just achieve what Bush was unable to do in over $120M worth of ads: slightly reduce the favorability gap between him and Kerry. My belief is that this ad received free media for the same reason Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 was such a hot topic of discussion in the national media. It is the same reason that Dean's "scream" received so much national attention, that the Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson court cases receive so much national attention, and that "reports" on the lifestyles of the rich and famous cut off Olympic coverage for one hour every evening. Whatever ideological biases people may feel various press outlets hold, for the vast majority of the national media, the true bias is toward tabloid-ism, sensationalism, and personality-driven, generally content-free news substitutes. Why do we even hear about the Scott Peterson case--much less hear about it quite a bit every single day--when we are at war and an election is coming up? How is that news compared to what is happening in the world today? Why was McGreevey's announced resignation a much bigger press event than Rowland's actual resignation? It is the same reason anti-war views were almost completely shut out of the media before Iraq, but why now stories of death and carnage are typically the lead stories from Iraq. The national press wants explosions, death and personalities. They want live drama that only they can offer as a form of original programming.

The SBVFT ad received such ludicrous free press precisely because its claims were outrageous and a direct attack on Kerry's character, rather than his stance on any issue. The ads provide a twist in the personality drama Democrats set up for Kerry at the national convention. This is exactly the sort of crap that the media is biased toward. It is another example of how our public sphere has degenerated into the mentality of reality TV, and just how low journalist standards have dropped since the 1996 telecommunications act incorporated and conglomerated our national media.

The extensive debunking of the ads by the Blogosphere and other outlets has gone a long way to making the impact of this story minimal, largely because they have attacked the personality of the people making attacks on Kerry's personality. However, an even better response would be to come up with a series of ads that attack Bush's personality drama where it hurts. Simply put, some 527 needs to produce a series of ads that portrays Bush as a complete asshole. They need to make him look like someone who you would never want to spend time with and who only cares about himself. Dig up some old college friends who complain about Bush's tendency to use off-color jokes and how it made him uncomfortable to be around. Find some old employees of Bush-ruined businesses who were hit hard by the company's failings while Bush himself came out richer than before. Try to specifically find people who were turned away by Bush when they directly appealed to him for help. This is the sort of ad buy the media would run with. The free media generated from the story will be worth 100 times what it cost to run the ads.

Any good ad campaign should not just be tested in focus groups of swing voters, but focus groups of editors, pundits and news directors as well. As the power of paid media declines, the ability of campaigns to exploit free media must begin to increase.

Tags: Media (all tags)

Comments

6 Comments

Swift Vets' Brilliant Move
The Swift Vets people knew that their ad would get most of its exposure from five-second clips shown as part of a larger story on the controversy. Putting their website on screen for the entire ad was a brilliant move; every time even a small bit of the ad is shown on the news, people know where to go to learn about the group. Smart.
by punishinglemur 2004-08-22 02:45PM | 0 recs
It must be done
The only shocking thing about this campaign is that it could be done a dozen times over without saying a single thing that wasn't true.
by daveholden 2004-08-22 03:05PM | 0 recs
Another possible motive?
They give away some free media now in order to hold on to their almost exclusive hold on FREE speach. The one thing the media loves most is free SPEACH. The one thing they fear most is FREE speach.

I'll define free SPEACH as the right granted by the First Amendment. They will do almost anything to protect it, including go to jail. All except Russert anyway.

FREE speach is speach that doesn't cost anything, or very little. It's what I'm doing right now actually. That is communicating to a large group, hopefully, for free.

Until a few years ago very few people could do that. Mainly the media and the very rich. They won't give it up without a fight. It's more of an instinct than a motive. Namely, the instinct of survival.

And I'm not just talking about spewing their political beliefs. I'm talking about selling recipes, and weather reports, and sport scores, and grocery coupons. Or promoting restaurants, or books, or movies. How many times have you bought a paper for one single bit of information?

TV stations can survive if you don't fall for their propaganda, but not if you don't watch those commercials.

Bush, along with Ascroft and the Patriot Act, is the saviour. I think he enjoys the roll.

Well, gotta go put on my tin foil hat.

by JimR 2004-08-22 07:50PM | 0 recs
Re: New Ad: Alabama NatGard Guys on Bush's Coke Ha
It doesn't even have to be someone that saw it, just heard about is fine. Excellent post Chris, this is exactly what I thought through this morning after seeing the numbers. Go after Bush like he's never been after before. Hopefully the Media Fund or Moveon gets their butt in high-gear when it matters.
by scoop 2004-08-22 09:11PM | 0 recs
I don't think so
However, an even better response would be to come up with a series of ads that attack Bush's personality drama where it hurts. Simply put, some 527 needs to produce a series of ads that portrays Bush as a complete asshole. They need to make him look like someone who you would never want to spend time with and who only cares about himself.

I disagree, vigorously.  The meme of Bush's affability and regular-guy-ness is now so firmly implanted in the American psyche, that such ads would more likely rebound against Kerry than they would do any damage to Bush.  The press won't pick up on them, because "Bush is nice" is part of their standard storyline, and they don't like to debunk their own mythology once they establish it (see the goring of Gore in 2000).

You don't attack an opponent frontally in his area of greatest strength out of picque or annoyance.  If you must attack their you come in from the sides with stealth and guile and hope to penetrate their defenses that way, plant a meme and get out -- but first you should consider if there aren't other places you can attack with greater chance of success.

Bush's good 'ol boy persona is so ingrained, that people will most probably still believe in it, even after they've been given the reasons they need to abandon him as a candidate.  To try to take him down on that basis is, in my opinion, extremely foolish.

by Ed Fitzgerald 2004-08-23 09:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Free Media Is Far More Influential Tha
It's absolutely true! Why? Because when I know a commercial is made just for us to see .. it means that it really says something true.. and it wants to warn us.. But though.. who wants our good.. It's a two way road.. On the other hand.. the commercials published while being payed .. don't always inspire me reality.. only if I know the brand very well.. and I can trust it. _____ "The future belongs to those who prepare for it today." california drug rehabilitation
by bsdwork 2007-10-10 11:17AM | 0 recs

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