* Ohio becomes testing ground for political science
* How many ads is too many, before viewers tune them out?
* A fine line between influencing and annoying viewers
By Alina Selyukh
COLUMBUS, Ohio, Nov 1 It's 6:10 p.m. on a
Thursday in October, just days before the U.S. elections. Before
the clock hits 6:29 p.m., 11 political ads will have aired on
the local NBC channel in Columbus, Ohio.
One tells voters that Democratic President Barack Obama has
not proposed a legitimate economic plan for the country. Another
suggests that policies of Republican candidate Mitt Romney would
undermine the future for America's children.
Yet another says Romney would effectively deny many women
crucial cancer screenings by proposing cuts to Planned
Parenthood. The very next ad calls Obama an extremist on
abortion who supports leaving babies "out to die."
Ohio is being inundated with such dueling ads in the final
days before Tuesday's presidential election, as Obama and Romney
both look to the state's 18 electoral votes as a crucial step
toward the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
The presidential race is now a fight in eight or so
politically divided "swing" states, but nowhere more so than
Ohio. Amid the chaos of the campaign's closing days, the state
has become an arena for credibility-stretching banter, and a
testing center for the growing science of political advertising.
New research predicts that total spending in this election
could reach $6 billion, making it the most expensive in U.S.
history. The campaigns and free-spending independent groups have
poured close to $1 billion into political ads - many of those
ads directed at Ohio - and have given analysts a high-profile
chance to examine some simmering questions about such ads.
Among them: How many ads is too many, before viewers tune
them out? And what do campaign ads lead voters to do, exactly?
Election-year political ads are a meticulously studied
subject, and increasingly are used to target specific groups and
encourage specific outcomes.
Some research, for example, suggests that pro-Democrat ads
are particularly effective at swaying voters' opinions, while
pro-Republican ads typically are more effective at getting party
supporters to show up at the polls.
For all the analysis that has been done on campaign ads,
academic and commercial research has yielded few answers on the
precise impact that ads have in determining who wins an
That is especially true, analysts said, in the type of
advertising free-for-all that Ohio residents are seeing on their
televisions now - wave after wave of ads with overlapping and
similarly dark, daunting messages.
Campaign ads became tiresome long ago for many Ohio
residents, but some viewers figure that the ads must be working,
or the campaigns wouldn't keep running them.
"I think poorly of those ads and don't think they work, but
there are so many of them I think it must be not so," said
JoAnne Harvey, a Columbus small business owner who, as an
undecided female voter, is much coveted by both campaigns.
In a reflection of how so many ads can essentially nullify
one another, Harvey and another dozen Ohioans interviewed
generally could not recall the details of a single campaign ad
that stood above the others. Those who could acknowledged that
they weren't sure which side the ad was meant to benefit.
Political advertising has become a multibillion-dollar
market that some television station sales managers predict soon
could be a year-round category of advertising.
It has become increasingly sophisticated in
"micro-targeting," the art of going after specific groups of
For example, Democrats have been found to be more frequent
television watchers than Republicans, and Democrats candidates
in 2008 ran more than twice as many ads as Republicans during
science-fiction shows, reality dating programs and telenovelas,
according to research by Washington State University professor
Travis Ridout and others.
Those programs as well as talk shows and court shows tended
to skew Democratic in viewership while crime and sports programs
skewed Republican, Ridout's study found.
But does the science of political advertising work?
One study completed last month found Obama's ads moving
voters away from Romney, while Romney's ads were much more
likely to encourage Republicans to vote, rather than shift
preferences among voters.
The findings were based on a survey of more than 2,300
registered voters who said they were independents or not deeply
committed to one party. They were shown one or several of the
campaigns' ads by the research software company Qualtrics and
the research firm Evolving Strategies.
"Romney doesn't seem to have a lot of ability to have people
moving in and out of the independent pool, but he has a lot of
room to change the equation in determining who turns out to
vote," said Adam Schaeffer of Evolving Strategies.
'THEY CAN'T STOP NOW'
If the targets of this year's ads are any guide, the
presidential election will be decided by middle-aged and older
white women, according to a survey of more than 1,000 buying
agencies done by STRATA, a software firm whose systems help air
some $50 billion worth of ads a year.
The question is whether the barrage of ads - the vast
majority of them attacking a candidate, rather than promoting
one - will become so overwhelming that they provoke a backlash.
Such ads "did work on me at first, and then I became a lot
more cynical and realized that a lot of it is political
warfare," said Harvey, who added that she voted for Obama in
2008 but was leaning toward Romney now. "It seems almost
epidemic; they can't stop now that they've started."
A rule of thumb in advertising is that an ad needs to be
viewed at least three times and up to 10 to be effective, said
STRATA Chief Executive John Shelton.
"There's no question that once you start to go over (10),
you start to, well, at least bore people," he said. "Then they
might tune out. Then they might actually get ticked off."
Barbara Berry, a healthcare professional and Obama supporter
from Columbus, said she pre-records TV programs and skips ads.
"I don't pay attention anymore," she said.
Since late August, more than 915,000 presidential campaign
ads have aired on broadcast and national cable TV, according to
the Wesleyan Media Project. In Columbus during October, ads by
the campaigns and outside groups aired more than 7,000 times.
"Some of them just disappear in the noise," said Dan
Bradley, general manager at the Columbus NBC affiliate WCMH-TV.
Each presidential campaign has been producing about a dozen
new ads a week, basing them on daily news events - a practice
that ensures that most of the ads have a short shelf life.
Romney in particular tends to place and replace ads at the
spur of the moment, often in response to the news of the day.
Obama's campaign runs two ad tracks: one that changes every
one or two days, the other every couple of weeks.
Ads this year "just seem to be rushed," said John Geer, a
political ad researcher at Vanderbilt University. It's "almost
like they've fallen prey to the fact that the campaigns have so
much money, and the ability to make all these ads."