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Was That Political Ad Over the Top? New Survey Promises to Answer Straight from Voters' Mouths

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, July 24 2012

Similar to the way many news sites now ask visitors to flag stories as funny, discouraging or provocative, a new project plans to poll Internet users for their reactions to selected political ads.

Vanderbilt University and polling firm YouGov are launching a project that will ask a representative sample of 600 Americans to give their reactions to each of a number of controversial and "game-changing" ads, selected by the polling team and with the help of Republican consultant Fred Davis. Their responses will be collected through online surveys, and the results will be posted on the web.

That's according to John Geer, professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. With Doug Rivers, chief innovation officer at YouGov and professor of political science at Stanford University, he presented the project at a Brookings Institution talk on Monday.

The project could help researchers develop a more nuanced view of the effectiveness of ads, said Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media. The big mistake in looking at political advertising often is, he said, that "we were just counting bombs." This project "gives you the potential to make that more nuanced -- this particular ad aired this many times but is rated in these different ways."

Rather than relying on small groups of experts or "fact-checkers" to gauge how political ads may have effected the electorate, Geer said, the idea here is to ask voters directly. Participants will be asked if they feel happy or disgusted, for example, whether they feel the ad was unfair or truthful, and whether it was memorable. The project plans to publish the results of its surveys online within around 40 hours.

Eventually, users will be able to compare the data on specific ads and also compare by demographic details such as gender. The project is using ten ads already out in the wild as a baseline, and has already posted survey results for one from the Obama campaign, mocking Romney for singing "America the Beautiful". The ad seemed to provoke a fairly equal level of disgust among Democrats, Republicans and Independents, hovering between 47 percent for Republicans and 50 percent for Democrats. Among Independents, 39 percent of Independents said the ad made them angry, versus 46 percent of Republicans. Among Democrats, 40 percent said the ad made them worried, compared to 27 percent of Independents and 19 percent of Republicans. The ad was rated memorable by 50 percent of all Americans on the panel, and 70 percent of Democrats, but only by 43 percent of Independents and 27 percent of Republicans. Among Republicans, 85 percent thought the ad was unfair, versus 9 percent of Democrats and around 40 percent of Independents and all respondents.