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.