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Leading up to the 2022 general elections in the state of Georgia, the Grady Research Radio podcast recently had the opportunity to feature Joseph Watson, Jr., the Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communications in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. Watson has over 20 years of experience working in public affairs, campaigns and communications.
In this interview, Watson answers questions about the state of political advertisements, the different advertisements out there, and the effectiveness of different approaches.
Below is a transcript of the podcast episode, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.
Grady Research Radio: Has anything surprised you so far in terms of the advertisements that we’ve seen leading up to the midterms in Georgia this year?
Joseph Watson: The thing that has surprised me about the advertisements I’ve seen coming in the election so far has really been their consistency. So, we all knew it was going to be a tough campaign season. We all knew that there were going to be a lot of negative ads. And so none of that has really surprised me. The volume is not surprising.
But, what is surprising is that they have been very consistent. All of the major campaigns have — maybe with one exception — kind of settled into what their campaign message is and have really diligently stuck to that. And that’s surprising, because usually campaigns struggle to identify what they think is their best message, and candidates often struggle to stay on the right path with that messaging.
But, for the most part, the candidates have done that, and that’s surprising to me because I’d actually expect some to oscillate more than they have.
Grady Research Radio: To me, it has felt like a pretty intense race in terms of the advertisements. There’s the television ad accusing Herschel Walker of abusing his ex-wife, which features an interview with the words coming directly out of her mouth. And then there’s another one that has him saying he wanted to kill a man. So, my question is, are these ads — these attack ads — do they surprise you? And are they effective?
Joseph Watson: I think they are absolutely effective. I should take a step back and say that I still regard Georgia as a red state. It’s a red state that’s trending purple. It’s not a red state trending blue. I think the fact that we have two Democratic senators is more of a reflection on some of the inadequacies of the Republican campaigns in the last election cycle than it is on the shifting politics in Georgia. There are demographic changes, though, that are driving the state purple, but nothing that I’ve seen yet suggests the state is really on the brink of becoming blue, as other states have.
No, I’m not really surprised at all by the aggressiveness of the ads. I think you have to understand that, you know, most campaigns just don’t have that much good material. So, I could not imagine, as someone who has been involved in campaigns, that if I had that kind of opposition research, I had those audio tapes where — Herschel Walker prior to contemplating a political career was very candid and participated in these interviews and conversations that were video recorded — I could not imagine a campaign that had that information not using it. In fact, I would have to say that if a campaign had that information and didn’t use it, it would be a malfeasance.
I think the thing that is unusual is that most individuals that are in or pursuing state-wide offices have really expected to be pursuing those offices for a long time, and they’re very diligent about what they say, how they’re recorded and how they’re framed. And so you’d be very hard-pressed to find information or content like that on most candidates.
But, this is kind of the situation with having more of a celebrity candidate. I mean, there were similar things that happened when Trump ran in 2016. That is part of having someone that has been in the public eye without any, you know, realization they were going to pursue politics. They have all this content out there.
A campaign will do opposition research to find out all the dirty secrets that are out there and figure out which of those things resonate with voters. I think the fact that you’re seeing the Warnock campaign drive that message over and over again, I think they have research that indicates that it is effective.
Grady Research Radio: How does the Herschel campaign, in this instance, respond to an ad like that? Is there a formula for responding to those kinds of attack ads?
Joseph Watson: Well, you know, I think when you’re faced with opposition like that, you want to assess, gather intelligence and then modulate a response to whatever is going on. Not everything that’s negative requires a response.
Here, obviously, the seriousness of what’s out there and the plainness of the content necessitate some kind of response. The Walker campaign did, when these allegations first came about and were being spread, release an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal which details Walker’s mental health issues over the years and kind of chide those who are using this as a source of negative campaign attacks. That’s one way to do it.
You could do a rebuttal ad to push back. The challenge here is that, factually, there’s no question about what was said. Factually, those are things that Walker did do, and he never questioned that it was there. For some of the interviews, he was recorded with his, you know, wife, or ex-wife, in his presence. So, there’s no denial of the truth. That makes it very difficult. It’s not like someone is alleging that you did something and you can put out a rebuttal saying, “That’s wrong. That never happened.”
The only pushback is that, you know, it was the product of a mental health issue. I think the Walker campaign has been wise to focus instead on driving their own attacks on Warnock. And I think both lines of attack are working well, because both of the candidates are a good number of points under 50 percent, so I think, in that sense, it has been effective for both campaigns, the negative approach.
I’ve probably seen more positive Warnock pieces recently than I’ve seen positive Walker pieces, but I think that could just be a factor of the cash advantage that Warnock has over Walker.
Grady Research Radio: You mentioned some of Walker’s ads. I know one of them that is relatively accusatory is when Walker’s campaign is accusing Warnock’s campaign of overstating racism as a problem. Is that kind of the type of ad that you’re pointing towards in this instance?
Joseph Watson: No. I don’t think that’s really the best line of attack for the Walker campaign on Warnock. I think the best line of attack is the one that I’ve probably seen the most, which is to tie Warnock to inflation and to the Biden Administration’s spending as a source of causation of the inflation that Georgians are experiencing right now.
I think that for Republicans, inflation is the top issue and the top message. I mean, that’s what you’ve consistently seen Governor Kemp focus on. He’s done a mixture of his accomplishments as governor and the economic performance of the state along with criticisms of inflationary policies. But, certainly, for federal candidates for Senate and congressional candidates on the Republican side, inflation is the best issue for them to focus on.
I think the line of attack on Warnock as being someone who voted for measures that gave checks — there is one ad that, you know, Warnock supported something that gave checks to the Boston Marathon bomb, or a stuff like that — that’s effective, because you’re painting him as somewhat extreme. And you’re also tying it to spending and inflation. So, you’re getting a lot packed into an ad like that, and I think those ads are best. The research I’ve seen suggests that those attacks on Warnock have resonated and done some damage.
Grady Research Radio: Overall, have negative ads been proven to be more effective than positive advertisements?
Joseph Watson: So, that’s a good question. This is one of the issues that I find fascinating, because there’s a distinction between how academics, political scientists and advertising and PR scholars all view this, versus what practitioners do. I mean, if you look at the academic literature, it almost always suggests that negative ads are not good, that they create issues, and you should focus on positive ads.
But the reality is, there are tons of negative ads. So you’re like, why is there a disconnect between this and what the research shows?
I always try to explain it this way. The negative ad is not free. For federal ads, you have to have a disclosure to say, you know, “I’m Raphael Warnock, and I paid for this ad.” You have to identify the source. So, if you’re writing a negative ad directly from your campaign that is aimed at your opponent, you have to put your name on at the end of it. And so that’s the double-edged sword there.
So, yes, you lob an attack. But anyone who’s lobbing an attack also is viewed negatively, because they’re doing something that’s negative. So, ultimately, you have to decide. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. Is the damage that you’re going to inflict on your opponent enough that it justifies or makes up for any damage you get for being on the attack? I think, for most campaigns, they judge it to be a net positive phenomenon to do the negative ads.
Grady Research Radio: Great. This next question is two-pronged. Misinformation in political advertisements is a topic of discussion that’s always coming up around this time. Has there been an overwhelming amount of misinformation presented in these ads? That’s the first part of the question. Secondly, does misinformation in ads even matter? Do people care?
Joseph Watson: Well, I think it is an important issue. It is generational. What we’ve found is, younger Americans are more dubious of the information they receive and less trusting of the validity of it than older Americans, in terms of making broad generalizations in terms of political content. As a result of that, you know, certainly when you’re thinking about older Americans that tend to kind of accept or trust what they see on an ad, it can be very problematic for there to be content there, because the perspective is that it is assumed to be true or valid.
I saw a lot of these kinds of ads featuring misinformation mostly centering around January 6th and centering around the validity of the 2020 election. Most of them were Republican primary ads that contain misinformation saying that the election was stolen or things like that.
In general, I’m not seeing quite that volume of misinformation. I think all the things that we’re seeing for the most part in this cycle are things that are pretty close. I mean, obviously, they’re being framed in a fashion that’s favorable to whoever is paying for the ad. But nothing gets to the level of the misinformation we saw in the Republican primaries, in which people were saying things that were just factually untrue.
You always have to keep in mind that with ads that are run on broadcast network television, the networks have to take those ads whether they contain true information or not. They don’t have the ability to turn them away. Now, in the social media space, they do. Social media platforms can turn down as they feature misinformation, but television broadcasters can’t. So, there’s a dynamic there that makes it particularly challenging in terms of, you know, when you think about older Americans sitting in their homes watching local television and seeing ads and assuming that what’s being shown to them is true when it may not be.
Grady Research Radio: Before this interview, you sent over an article that pointed out that, so far, Democratic candidates — both in the governor’s race and this senatorial race between Warnock and Walker — have spent significantly more money on advertisements than the GOP candidates. So my question is, is there a correlation between the money spent on advertisements and the success of candidates?
Joseph Watson: Well, you certainly have to have a lot of money to be competitive in a race. It’s possible that you can have a cash advantage and still lose. Having more cash is not a guarantee of victory, but having not enough cash is a problem in terms of how competitive or viable you are in a general election.
It is better to have the money. I mean, it is a good problem to have. But, again, one of the things I keep coming back to is, fundamentally, campaigns do well when they have sound strategies and effective tactics. All the money in the world is not going to help you if your fundamental strategy, your core theory of that campaign, is not a good one.
We see that every cycle. Think about going back a couple years to Mike Bloomberg, who spent an inordinate amount of money and basically got nothing to show for it.
I will say, though, that where money comes in handy and where it’s effective is in the ability to get your message out. There is the ability to be on the air and be on the air as much as you need to be.
For Democrats, that’s really important. I mean, It was big news a number of weeks ago when Republicans had to push the pause button on ads in a number of different states in Senate races just because they were light on cash. They had to conserve money for the final stretch. So they went dark on ads, and that allowed Democrats to basically own the airwaves for a number of weeks until Republicans said, “Okay, now we have enough money to finish this.”
Having enough money would mean that you would never have to go off the air. In a race like this, you never want to go off. You want to be able to be on the air for the duration, and the money that the Democratic candidates have had so far is giving them the ability to stay the whole time.
Grady Research Radio: I watch a lot of Jeopardy. So, the majority of the political ads that I see are during that half hour. Are television ads still king? Or, have candidates resorted to other mediums, perhaps social media, and have those ads been proven to be maybe more effective than the classic television ad?
Joseph Watson: The television ad remains king. In particular, the television ad that is shown on cable television is king. That’s where you have the highest penetration of likely voters. One thing that we’ve seen consistently in studies is that the older Americans are, the more likely they are to vote, you know, the more regularly they vote. Cable television is the preferred medium for political and public affairs information for older Americans, and that’s why cable television is king.
If you were exclusively trying to reach Generation Z, you could have a social media framework. They’re not watching cable news, so you wouldn’t have to spend that money. But with the current electorate as it is, if you’re trying to reach Baby Boomers and Gen X, you’re going to need to spend money on cable television.
There is one exception for cash-strapped campaigns, which is the notion of developing a viral ad. If you develop an ad and, you know, you place it on YouTube, which doesn’t cost you anything, you can kind of flag it for media outlets. If it’s something that is attention-getting, you can get a lot of earned media coverage from it and get greater penetration of that ad without actually doing an ad buy on television.
There was an ad for a candidate in Missouri in which he said he’s going “RINO hunting.” It shows him kicking down doors, they’ve got camo on, and they’re going to places with guns. It was like, are they advocating violence? What’s going on here? And that was so shocking that it garnered a lot of media coverage. That’s something that they didn’t necessarily have to do an ad buy for. But because it was so, you know, titillating, it basically got them earned media coverage.
The dilemma for candidates — for the campaign that did that — all the coverage they got was predominantly negative. And so, you can do something like that, but to do something that’s so shocking, you get media coverage covered with a jaundiced dye that’s not very favorable to your campaign.
But, nevertheless, it allows you to get it out there and get it disseminated widely. And so campaigns will do that. And that’s one way in which you could still reach those demographics that are watching cable television or broadcast television without spending the money that you ordinarily would have to spend to be on cable or broadcast.
Grady Research Radio: Thanks for your time today.
Joseph Watson: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.