At various points throughout the 2020 campaign, an attack ad reportedly appeared online and observers on Twitter were excited that it would be devastating for Donald Trump. Except that, more often than not, the ads have been ineffective, at least not for the nominal point of the election: persuading marginal voters to support Joe Biden.
That’s the conclusion the Democratic Party’s main super PAC came to after conducting analytical research on a handful of spots that went viral on Twitter.
The PAC, Priorities USA, spent a good part of the cycle testing the effectiveness of the ads, about 500 in all. And, along the way, they decided to conduct an experiment that could have saved them tons of money. They took five commercials produced by another occupant of the Super PAC estate – the Lincoln Project – and attempted to measure their persuasive power among persuadable swing state voters; that is, the ability of an advertisement to move voters from Trump to Joe Biden. A control group saw no ad. Five different treatment groups, each consisting of 683 respondents, saw one of the five ads. Then they were asked the same questions after treatment, measuring how likely they would vote and who they would vote for.
The idea was not to be petty or antagonistic to Project Lincoln, which drew both fans and detractors for the scorched spots he was running, begging other Republicans to ditch Trump. Rather, it was to see if Twitter virality could be used as a substitute for actual ad testing, which took time and money. If what the Lincoln Project was doing turned out to be convincing, thinking was going, then Priorities USA could use Twitter as a near-barometer to see how strong their own ads were.
But that didn’t turn out to be the case. According to Nick Ahamed, chief analytics officer of Priorities, the correlation between Twitter metrics (likes and retweets) and persuasion was -0.3, “meaning the more successful the ad on Twitter, the less it persuaded voters of the States of the battlefield. ” The most viral of the Lincoln Project’s commercials – a spot called Bounty, which was rerun 116,000 times and liked more than 210,000 times – turned out to be the least convincing of these tested priorities.
Reed Galen, a senior Lincoln Project official, did not dispute the findings. In fact, he said they made sense. He noted that his group’s advertising strategy was not meant to be one-dimensional – that they ran spots with little fanfare in swing states in addition to the ones they broadcast to great effect on social media.
“We were fairly clear from the start on the paths of our strategic influence. The first, which made the most noise, was for the audience of one. It was the thing directed at Trump, the campaign, the White House, and the family. The stuff we knew would distract them, anger them, make them fight internally, get him fired Brad Parscale, sue us, whatever it was to get their attention directed elsewhere, ”Galen said. “The second is a lot of stuff we’ve done in Electoral College states, often we haven’t even posted it on Twitter. But we understood, no one better than us, that Twitter was a megaphone that, from our perspective, drove what we did against Trump, sometimes in his head, and sometimes in the narrative the press was watching and created, and gave our 2.7 million people on Twitter the energy they needed.
This energy was not nothing either. Ahamed said the Lincoln Project spots likely helped motivate Biden’s predisposed voters, even if their persuasive ability to overthrow Trump’s voters was not showing. “The bottom line is that as political agents or as people online on Twitter, we’re not necessarily a good judge of what’s compelling,” Ahamed said.
The conclusion that Twitter is actually not real life is one that seems to underline much of the 2020 election. Biden’s victory in the Democratic primary came despite the obvious lack of connective tissue between him and the his party’s online voice. And as his team sailed in the general election against Trump, his digital strategy hinged on the idea that going viral was actually a bad idea.
By examining the wreckage of the electoral cycle, Ahamed extended the lesson even further. Sometimes, he argued, political entities not only need to guard against Twitter’s impulse to grab attention, they need to produce content that is accessible to the majority of the population, which does not reside on the media.
To that end, he sent the Daily Beast the most compelling ad Priorities released and tested in the same month the group ran their viral advertising test. The place was remarkable for how conventional it looked.
“The underlying mechanism of persuasion, I think of it as a cough medicine,” Ahamed said. “People don’t like to have changed their mind.”
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