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Study finds YouTube campaign videos more positive than TV ads

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, March 15 2012

Just in time for the Obama campaign’s launch tomorrow of a new 17-minute campaign video and organizing platform, the Brookings Institution has released a new study of the political use of online video that finds that YouTube campaign videos are more positive than TV campaign advertisements.

"YouTube videos are more positive than TV advertisements because they are more narrowly targeted to the highly informed, highly motivated, usually supportive people who view a candidate’s online videos. Informing and inspiring supporters is a task well
suited to YouTube videos," according to the study authored by Rob Salmond, assistant professor for political science at the University of Michigan. He examined more than 3,000 YouTube videos uploaded for various campaigns in 12 countries, and his general finding holds across them all, though the difference was not the same in all countries.

"Attacking an opponent, however, is more effectively done on TV, because weak supporters of a candidate’s opponent – the usual target for negative advertising – are more likely to watch the candidate’s TV spot than to watch the candidate’s YouTube video,” Salmond writes.

According to the study, the difference is more significant in the United States, with winner-take-all elections, than European style proportional elections. "In the 2008 presidential campaign, the Obama campaign’s YouTube videos that also likely appeared on TV 5 were mostly attack ads against John McCain (56 percent), whereas the YouTube-only ads were mostly positive ads about Obama (73 percent)," according to the study. While the McCain campaign was more negative in general, "this tendency was substantially starker in the YouTube-and-TV videos (68 percent negative) than in the YouTube-only videos (52 percent negative)."

While campaigns outside the United States were generally more positive, the study still found that double the negative ads appears on TV then on YouTube. Overall, of YouTube only videos, 78 percent attacked an opponent based on the issues, while 22 percent attacked an opponent's character, a percentage that jumped to 38 percent for ads on TV.

In addition, the study found that over half of TV attacks contained strong fear appeals, while less than a quarter of YouTube-only ads did.

Salmond attributes the difference in YouTube videos to the idea that the choice to watch a YouTube video is an active decision "to click on a link sent by a friend, or in other cases spending time searching for political content online," while the decision to watch a TV ad is more passive. "Specifically, the audience for YouTube advertisements is younger, richer, more educated, more politically interested, and more partisan than the population at large," according to the study. He also argues that the goal of attack ads "is to convince a person with low political engagement not to support the candidate with whom they previously had weak ties." But while there are a large number of "low-information, weakly-partisan people" in the general population, " they do not tend to frequent political YouTube channels, especially YouTube channels sponsored by a candidate they do not prefer. In short, attack advertising is less effective on YouTube because the target audience is largely absent."

The study also notes that the target audience for YouTube ads is more interested in longer, informational content. YouTube, therefore, is a platform for campaigns to distribute "videos [that] are over 10 minutes in length, often consisting of extended clips from candidate speeches" at a low cost.

TV attack videos, often limited to 60, 30, or even 15 seconds in length, have to make a general point quickly. This requirement often lends itself to emotive cues which can be created almost instantly in a video (e.g., grainy black and white photo of opposing candidate shaking hands with Saddam Hussein while horror movie music plays), as opposed to cognitive, fact-based cues which take more of the video to develop (e.g., narrator informing the audience about the Iran / Iraq war in the 1980s...)

It would appear that the Obama campaign already understands these dynamics. Tomorrow it is unveiling a 17-minute documentary made by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim, narrated by actor Tom Hanks and featuring Vice President Joe Biden, former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and former President Bill Clinton.

According to the New York Times, “The new YouTube platform that the Obama campaign will use to release the documentary gives anyone visiting the president’s YouTube page a number of options to share the content or pledge support, the kind of one-click approach that campaigns now see as an integral part of their digital strategies.”

“The technology will allow viewers to post campaign content to their Facebook pages, volunteer and donate all without having to leave Mr. Obama’s dedicated YouTube page. Eventually campaign strategists hope to use the new software to focus on people in highly specific ways. For example, if someone watches a video about a certain geographic location, like Florida, a list of that person’s Facebook friends in Florida would appear alongside the video with a message from the campaign that suggests recommending the video to them.”