Aired ads target up-in-the-air voters

Political science and communications prof.: Meretz has the best ads so far.

likud olmert horses ad (photo credit: Channel 10)
likud olmert horses ad
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Political advertising is likely to have a bigger effect on this year's elections than in previous races, according to political communications experts. Because political ads create images more than they change ones that already exist, the relatively amorphous Kadima party could get a boost from their ads, said Gadi Wolfsfeld, political science and communications professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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He added that undecided voters - who constitute at least 18 percent of the current electorate - were the most likely to be swayed by advertising. Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, head of the public communications program at Bar-Ilan University, agreed that viewers most receptive to the ads are "those who are really up in the air or don't have an opinion to begin with - [the latter of which] obviously in Israel almost don't exist." He added, though, that successful political ads are generally well-tailored to their audience, which poses a challenge for the centrist Kadima. "The strategy there has to be more 'everything and the kitchen sink.'" He rated Meretz as having the best billboard ads so far, with their use of shocking terms to describe pressing issues. He noted that much of the public wouldn't even understand them - but those people weren't the ones Meretz was after. Wolfsfeld, though, gave negative ads the highest marks for impact: They're more cost-effective and convincing. He explained "you get much more bang for your buck" with negative ads because they often serve as fodder for stories for election reporters, who then multiply the reach of the initial ads by reporting on them as news items. Secondly, he said, it's easier to persuade a cynical public that politicians are untrustworthy than noble. "It's hard to [convince] people that 'I'm a great guy,' but you can convince people that, 'yeah, I'm a crook but he's even more of a crook.'" Wolfsfeld noted that ads can also have an "indirect effect" by shaping the news agenda. He pointed to the 1996 elections, in which Binyamin Netanyahu's focus on security and the division of Jerusalem helped increase news coverage of these topics, which in turn helped him beat Shimon Peres. However, Lehman-Wilzig asserted that whatever help ads give parties, their significance would be marginal. He said that first-person information and opinion exchange - "anybody who has social authority; some people go and listen to taxi drivers" - was much more important than anything said in the media. And the number of people watching the ads has significantly declined over time. Wolfsfeld attributed the drop in viewers, in part, to the increasingly lackluster content of the ads themselves. Modern campaigns have adopted the strategy of staying on message - and therefore are less likely to run adventurous and entertaining ads, he said. "As they've become more professional they've become more boring." Lehman-Wilzig recalled a time when gathering around the TV to view the new ads "was almost a national sport." Whereas 70-80% of the population watched the spots before cable and commercial TV debuted in the 1990s, he estimated that only 30% or so watch them now. Since only the undecided voters were likely to be affected by them, he figured that only 6% of those for whom the ads are mostly intended would actually see them. Lehman-Wilzig noted that, unlike American viewers, for whom the ads are tucked into the commercial breaks of regular programs, Israelis viewers have to consciously choose to sit through the series of ads presented in program-length chunks. "You have to be a certain kind of masochist to do that," he said.