Study Measures Impact of ‘Cocaine Monkey’ Message on Voters

Despite the fact that Republican Mike Prendergast lost his 2010 bid for Florida’s 11th Congressional seat, a study aims to prove his online ads were memorable and helped sway voters away from his opponent. One of just a handful of studies aimed at tying online advertising to voter sentiment, this one, conducted by The California Group and funded in part by Google, measured the impact of a negative message disseminated by the Prendergast camp almost entirely thorugh online ads.

“Does your monkey need rehab?” Display ads (which in some cases featured a closeup shot of a shrieking chimpanzee rather than a monkey) asked the tongue-in-cheek question; the ads claimed Prendergast’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Kathy Castor, “spent $71,000 to study monkeys on cocaine.” The idea was to saddle Castor with a reputation as a wasteful spender of federal tax dollars.

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In an eight-day study launched with an initial baseline poll conducted between October 24 and October 26, 2010, The California Group found that respondents who identified Castor with “cocaine monkeys” rose by 8 percentage points from 28 percent the initial polling day to 36 percent by the final day of polling, November 4, after the election.

“I dreamed up this test late some night on a campaign in Wheaton, IL in the fall of 2008 and have been waiting to do it since,” said Steven Moore, a political pollster and consultant who’s been using online ads to communicate with voters since 2007.

Moore led the study in conjunction with George Gorton, president of The California Group, a political consulting firm. The study applied principles of political TV campaign studies.

In the final poll, 12 percent of all voters surveyed reported having heard the phrase “Does your monkey need rehab?” – up from 8 percent on the first polling day. However, while California Group said the monkey-related message was not used in any other paid efforts by Prendergast, it may have seeped into voters heads elsewhere. Creative Loafing Tampa reported on October 5, 2010 that around that time the Prendergast campaign had been “calling residents of the district in what could be considered a push-poll, with such leading questions as if the voter would vote to support Castor ‘because she spent $71,000 to study monkeys on cocaine’….”

California Group believed the phone polling or other minor instances of the message that may have been floating around did not have a significant impact and were addressed by the baseline polling.

Few published studies measuring the impact of online political ad campaigns on voter sentiment exist. It’s rare enough for a campaign to reveal such information in cases when the candidate won, but the fact that Prendergast lost the election by nearly 20 points (59 percent voted for Castor compared to 40 percent for Prendergast), makes it even more unique.

Another study conducted last year was published while the campaign was still going on. In this case, the study, also conducted with Google’s help, compared the effects of a combined Web and TV ads with a TV-only campaign for Democrat Chris Kelly’s , who was running for California Attorney General. The results showed that compared to a 19 percent lift from TV ads alone, TV and Web ads combined provided a 23 percent lift in favorability toward Kelly among Democratic primary voters.

According to the Prendergast study, a negative message was chosen “because, in other forms of voter contact, negative messaging about the opponent penetrates more quickly and effectively than positive messaging about the candidate. We assumed the same would hold for digital ads.”

As Moore put it, “The first thing voters forget about a negative message about a candidate is where they got it. The second thing they forget is the information itself. They are then left with just a negative feeling about the candidate. I think the cycle is similar and perhaps even accelerated in online ads.”

The study, which included tracking polls conducted on October 29 through October 31, showed a 6 percentage point lift – from 20 percent to 26 percent – in the portion of respondents who said Castor was the politician most likely to be associated with a $71,000 program involving monkeys and coke.

The ads also affected unfavorability toward Castor, suggested the study. While favorability remained relatively flat whether or not people had come in contact with the monkey message, unfavorability toward the Democratic incumbent was higher among those who had. Twenty-seven percent who had not come in contact with the message were unfavorable toward Castor compared to 38 percent who had.

Republican men were of particular interest to the campaign, and because of the large polling sample which totaled 1,400 surveys, California Group was able to break out results showing the online ad campaign’s impact on male Republicans in the targeted district. The study found that the percentage of Republican men who said they had seen, read, or heard the monkey rehab message rose from 4 percent to 22 percent between the first and final polls.

Half of that percentage point rise – 11 percent – came in just the last two days of the ad campaign, according to the study, which noted that 9.3 million targeted impressions ran in the first six days while 5.3 million ran in the final two days.

Republican digital media firm CampaignGrid handled the ad buy. The company used voter data to target registered voters in specific voter zones, or slices of Zip code areas, and ran display units on sites including AOL, CNN.com, RealClearPolitics, NBC Sports, and Facebook.

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