Fla. Slammed With Political Ads But Do Locals Listen?

We take a look at political ads with Florida voters to see how they respond to the messaging and whether they know or care who's paying for the ads.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The biggest challenge now facing President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is how to win over undecided voters. Both candidates will speak directly to them tonight in the second presidential debate. And in the key swing state of Florida, the campaigns and superPACs are spending record amounts on ads to lock down these last precious votes. NPR's Debbie Elliott has that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIDS PLAYING)

SARA AU: All right. Kids, you guys are getting a little crazy here.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Sara Au and her neighbor Deena Grabowski have just returned from a school meeting in East Orlando, and their kids are enjoying a rare weeknight play-date.

AU: Mandy, there's still time for "Glee" if you hurry up.

ELLIOTT: The moms sit down in the den, and Sara Au clicks on her television.

AU: There's one right now. There you go.

ELLIOTT: Within 10 seconds, a Mitt Romney for president ad comes on the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

MITT ROMNEY: Let me tell you how I'll create 12 million jobs when President Obama couldn't.

DEENA GRABOWSKI: I just don't believe them. I don't believe anything that they say. I just think they're telling me what they think I want to hear.

ELLIOTT: Deena Grabowski remains undecided and says her head is spinning from all the competing messages, mostly dealing with the economy.

GRABOWSKI: The one person will say I'm doing this and this is good, and then the other person will say, well, yeah, but that thing that he's doing that's good, he enslaved all these children in China and made that happen, so it's really not good. No. But it is good because all the Chinese children got fed. What's the truth? It's somewhere. Somewhere in there is the truth, but I can't weed through it. I get...

AU: There's another one, by the way.

GRABOWSKI: Yeah. Here's...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Americans have simply given up where our children will grow up under the weight of a crushing debt in a world where America is no longer the leader.

ELLIOTT: That ad is from Restore Our Future.

AU: That was a nice little PAC message which make me crazy. That really bothers me that there's so much money flowing through and so many organizations that are not the candidates that are, in my point of view, I think sometimes buying the election and I really - I resent that.

ELLIOTT: Even more than the competing messages from the candidates, Au says she really can't stomach commercials from the outside groups. She says their harshly negative ads are distorting.

AU: You're sitting in a house that's underwater, like everybody else in this area, but I think we have started to feel a little bit more settled in terms of things that are happening with the economy, but I think just because of screaming headlines it feels like everything is still really up in the air, and it feels very unsettling. And I think a lot of that is due to the campaign and the tenor of the ads.

ELLIOTT: And with three weeks to go, just about every other ad seen on Florida television is about the presidential race.

ELIZABETH WILNER: Ads make the most noise and cost the most money.

ELLIOTT: Elizabeth Wilner is vice president of Kantar Media's CMAG, Campaign Media Analysis Group. She says there's twice as much money behind the ads as there was in 2008.

WILNER: Maybe you sway the 10 people who - after all this is Florida - maybe you sway the 10 people who at the end are actually going to make the difference in the election because it will be that close.

ELLIOTT: Last week alone, there were nearly 16,000 presidential ads seen in Florida at a cost of more than $16 million. But this blanket TV advertising is not the most efficient way to target swing voters, says Diana Mutz, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

DIANA MUTZ: They don't actually know how much bang for their buck that they're getting.

ELLIOTT: Unlike selling soap, for instance, she says there's not really conclusive research that shows political ads influence voters and get them to the polls.

MUTZ: People can show you how much market share you're likely to gain through product advertising, but it's a very different thing with political adverting because it's a one-day sale.

(LAUGHTER)

MUTZ: Election Day is the only day you can buy the product.

ELLIOTT: But just because the candidates don't have hard proof the ads work don't expect political advertising to let up anytime soon, especially in Florida. Just about every voter I spoke with in this coveted stretch of Central Florida expressed frustration with the deluge of ads.

CHOICE EDWARDS: It's money wasted on me as an independent voter.

ELLIOTT: Retiree Choice Edwards.

EDWARDS: Now, if I were a partisan voter, I'd be sitting there, yay for my man. But as an independent voter, I don't see the substance, and they turn me off, so I turn them off.

ELLIOTT: Edwards also resents that outside groups are spending so much money to sway the election, but the former Republican also found the candidate ads wanting. For instance, this one from the Obama campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

CHRISTY: I do the laundry. I pay the bills. I make sure my kids are fed and rested and healthy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Moms like Christy would be stretched even more under Mitt Romney.

EDWARDS: I think that ad tugs at the heartstrings, not a lot of substance. It talks about how things would be under Mitt Romney, but how do we really know how things will be under Mitt Romney?

ELLIOTT: Even so, Edwards has decided to vote for President Obama. Tallmadge Ledford is an independent who has decided to vote for Mitt Romney. He's no fan of the campaign commercials either.

TALLMADGE LEDFORD: Most of the time, we mute it to tell you the truth because we've heard it so many times. We hear them over and over. And on both sides, it's half truths.

ELLIOTT: Ledford is a retiree who lives in a gated community in Clermont, just outside Orlando in Lake County, Florida. He, like Choice Edwards, craves more substance.

LEDFORD: Why not just say what you're for and what you can do and be honest. This is what I believe in, and this is what I'm going to try to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWANS SQUAWKING)

ELLIOTT: At Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando, a lot of voters are frustrated by the endless barrage of ads, and many don't even care to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWANS SQUAWKING)

ELLIOTT: As swans feed nearby, Maria Figueroa is taking a lunchtime power walk around the lake. She's seen a lot of ads but still doesn't know who to vote for, for president.

MARIA FIGUEROA: I'm just a little fed up, period, actually.

ELLIOTT: Really?

FIGUEROA: Yeah. There's too much he says, he did and too much finger-pointing and not really getting to the point - what are you really going to do for us?

ELLIOTT: She says the ads have failed to answer her question. Maybe tonight's debate will. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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