In the same way a pharmaceutical company would use a control group and a treatment group for drug testing, Civis and Swayable promote ads over the internet to various sets of demographic groups who are asked to complete a survey before and after seeing.
The most eloquent campaign commercial of the 2012 presidential race came from Priorities USA, then a pro-Obama SuperPAC. His spot called “Stage” depicted Mitt Romney as a private equity vulture who shuttered a Midwestern paper plant called Ampad during his time at Bain Capital. The advert featured laid-off plant workers who described how they were asked to build a stage for an announcement which would be the closure of the plant. One Ampad employee said that it was like building my own coffin. The wretched ad was viewed as decisive in the battleground state of Ohio that Obama ultimately won. The commercial was appreciated by Democrats insiders and moving the media narrative even further against Romney. Priorities had announced by November of 2012 that the ad had been seen on YouTube by 2.8 million people, though it is unclear how many people have seen it in Ohio. But there is little polling evidence to suggest that the ad, which was launched in June, in any way had disturbed undecided or low-frequency Ohio voters. Today’s digital environment offers new ways to approach traditional consultants and find out if a message actually resonates, he said. He told me that “the way we used to test digital spots was that you would look at its performance online just as that happened” …If people liked it or clicked on it or commented or shared it, we would say: Nice, this is a lot of engagement. And it turns out that based on the audience that you actually want to reach with your advertisement, it could be that all the wrong people engage with it. “And sometimes for all the wrong reasons.”
Fellow Americans partnered with two firms—Civis Analytics and Swayable—for what it called ‘creative pretesting’. In the same way a pharmaceutical company would use a control group and a treatment group for drug testing, Civis and Swayable promote ads to different sets of demographic groups over the internet who are asked to complete a survey before and after watching. At this critical time, people are looking at empirical evidence about whether messages work, and you still have poll testing of messages in politics, which is a bullshit,” said Swayable CEO James Slezak to me. A pollster called people and said: ‘If I said this, what would you say? But there is no science that can predict how persuasive it will be. You don’t give a drug to a thousand people in a drug trial and ask them to improve their condition the next day. You have a test group and a control group. Swayable recruits digital users using a network of popular apps, games and publishers to reward them for watching an ad and then participating in a survey afterward. Specific voter demographics — like suburban women in Florida, under-40 Black men in Wisconsin, or religious voters in Pennsylvania — can be mapped based on known information or behavior-based segmentation modeling. In the midterms of 2018 Swayable and Civis began to honne these digital strategies and another Democratic group, Open Labs, is doing similar survey work for audience targeted television audiences. But this is the first presidential cycle in which creative testing has penetrated into the Democratic mainstream practice.