SACRAMENTO — A month before Election Day, pollster Gary Lawrence headed out on the focus-group circuit one last time. He traveled to Glendale, Fresno, Sacramento and West Los Angeles, playing the entire collection of anti-Proposition 65 commercials to a dozen registered voters at each stop.
By now there were nine advertisements--covering the distance from the Rancho Seco nuclear plant to Prof. Irwin Corey. An initial commercial staged in a movie theater had been dumped; it just didn't seem to work.
Everywhere, Lawrence heard similar comments about the commercials. Insipid, confusing, trivial, stupid. This spot missed the point, the focus-group participants would complain. That one ducked the issue. Irwin Corey's gags, so funny on the set, crashed into unforgiving walls of blank stares. "How insulting!" was a common refrain.
This was all pretty much as expected.
"I call it the Cecil B. DeMille effect," Lawrence said. It rears up whenever television watchers are presented an opportunity to evaluate political commercials. If they can't find fault with content--and they usually can--focus-group participants will take the ad-makers to task on such technical fineries as the camera work, lighting or narrator elocution.
There are two explanations for this venom. Either the spots are truly awful and deserve the wrath, or--and this is what campaign consultants prefer to believe--no one wants to praise political advertising because to do so would suggest it can influence their vote.
An exception turned up in Fresno. Her name was Agnes.
Agnes happened to be seated next to the focus group's dominant participant, an elderly woman who was proud that she had returned to college. This woman had strident criticism for every ad:
I'm insulted when something is presented to me in that way !
It doesn't say one thing about the issue!
Finally Lawrence sought to derail this woman's runaway train of invective by asking her, in an almost exasperated tone, if there was any kind of political commercial she would like.
"What I'd like," she said, "is to have two League of Women Voters representatives discussing the issue." Right, we'll get back to you next election.
Lawrence turned to Agnes.
"Agnes," he said, congenially, "we haven't heard from you for a while. What are your thoughts?"
Agnes is a tall, red-haired woman, and she spoke with that slight suggestion of twang found often among Fresnans. In short, Agnes inspired appreciation for whoever cast Carol Burnett as a Fresno matron in the satirical miniseries "Fresno."
Looking for Entertainment
"What I want most from my commercials," Agnes said, "is entertainment.
"I think our commercials are sometimes more entertaining than the programs around them. And at home we vote--my husband and I--according to the quality of the skit."
So far Lawrence had played three loony Corey spots and the Ira J. Sleazebaum ad, a humorous but more sedate poke at profiteering lawyers.
"OK," he told Agnes now, "let's put you in the role of being on the no side for just a minute. If you could only play one commercial of the four we've seen so far, which would you play?"
She didn't hesitate.
"If it was my money, I'd want the funny man."
A lonely vote for Irwin Corey.
Although rare are the Agneses who admit it, spots do influence votes--not all, certainly, but enough to sometimes decide elections--and some spots do work better than others. Despite the intellectual barricades thrown up by most focus-group participants, Lawrence needed to learn what they really thought about the Proposition 65 commercials. He had some tricks.
He would, for instance, ask participants how their neighbors or spouses might react to certain spots. Rarely would they give others as much credit as they gave themselves, and in answers to these questions they would provide a window into what they themselves considered the commercial's strengths. Also, Lawrence would instruct participants to provide written evaluations of the spots, and these judgments often contradicted their harsh talk and were considered more reliable.
Doug Watts, the political consultant responsible for the spots, was pleased with results of the testing. For starters, he said, the focus groups had served their purpose as a last "disaster check" prior to airing the new spots. The creative process can be blinding to otherwise obvious errors, and Watts wanted to make sure he hadn't missed any. He had.
The Irwin Corey spot about peanuts created exactly the wrong impression with viewers. Missed was the suggestion that peanuts would carry warning labels under Proposition 65 because of natural toxins. Instead, focus-group participants concluded that tainted irrigation water was ruining the nation's peanuts--a notion that Watts would prefer to leave unexplored. The spot was canceled.