Ad campaign leaves voters, experts unimpressed

Conventional political wisdom about ballot proposals says that they’re almost always an uphill battle. The “no” side has an advantage with an electorate that often looks on change with skepticism.

So says Robert Kolt, whose Okemos-based Kolt Communications specializes in advertising. (He also teaches at Michigan State University.) But, he adds, that’s not to say they’re impossible to pass.

“You need money, passion, organized support and a good campaign. All (of Tuesday’s defeated ballot proposals in Michigan) had maybe a piece of that, but not the whole thing.”

In the case of the six questions on this year’s crowded November ballot, parsing voter behavior is maybe a little easier than most years. One referendum and five proposed constitutional amendments all went down to defeat by margins ranging from decisive (52-48 percent on Proposal 1, the emergency-manager question) to lopsided (69-31 for Proposal 5, which would require supermajorities for tax increases). Their failure is mostly a victory for Gov. Rick Snyder, who asked for approval of Proposal 1 and defeat of the rest, and a case study for anyone interested in the value of political advertising.

A record-breaking $152.5 million was raised by ballot committees for this campaign, funding a blizzard of ads that clogged the evening news, filled mailboxes and invaded YouTube. About $35 million went to Proposal 6 alone, pushing an amendment that would require statewide votes on any new international bridges or tunnels. And yet, all that money couldn’t save it from going down to a 20-point loss.

The defeat showed that money can’t buy everything, Kolt said. The campaign, funded by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, was roundly criticized for false and misleading statements, and was lacking a critical element -- support.

“The ads started early, and spent a lot of money bashing the governor,” he said. “And then it was though someone said, ‘We don’t have any people. Let’s go hire some actors.’”

Not all the individuals appearing in the pro-Proposal 6 ads were actors, but the message that “the people should decide” was pitched as a grassroots, common-sense idea. Voters, however, saw through the essential misinformation at its heart.

What do voters want?

“Citizens want to make informed decisions,” said Jocelyn Benson, a Wayne State University law professor and election expert. “But there was so much noise. (Proposal 6) was one of the most dishonest campaigns we’ve seen in Michigan.”

Benson supported Proposal 2, and thought that the “noise,” as well as the length of the ballot this year may have soured support for all of them.

“What we saw was a rejection of the cacophony of noise around those initiatives. I don’t know whether the substance could break through,” she said.

But ads are ads, not education, and some voters didn’t find them helpful at all.

“I've been flooded with mailers and phone calls concerning the various proposals,” said Yvonne Smith, a 44-year-old homemaker from Detroit. “I think that you only have the information to make a wise choice if you have the Internet, because the information that was sent through the mail and via automated phone calls were vague. There was not a complete synopsis of detailed information concerning the proposals.”

In the future, political ads of this sort are likely to migrate from mass media to social media, said Josh Pasek, assistant professor of communication studies in the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. His research on the use of social media in political campaigns leads him to believe that these new venues will only rise in prominence.

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to get your message out, you needed to pay a media firm a lot of money to do it,” he said. Today, those messages are not only likely to be spread by connected individuals, they may even be created by them -- in the form of Facebook posts.

“To put this on your bully pulpit, you have to care,” Pasek said. “It has to feel worth it (to the person spreading the message).”

What’s more, ever-improving tracking of individuals online may soon lead to extremely precise targeting of ads. A couple sitting in the same room Web-surfing on individual laptops may find themselves being served different ads based on their online profiles.

“You’re accompanied online with tons of data, and largely we forget about it,” Pasek said. “But you’re dropping cookie crumbs everywhere. The potential for tailored, targeted messages is definitely there.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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