- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A national political ad appeared on Comedy Central TV for the first time last week. Why hasn’t that happened before? Because nobody thought voters were watching.

However, public perception of the channel, the home of such shows as “South Park,” has changed as “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” have become must-stops for major political players and the places where many younger, well-informed voters get their news. Republican candidate Sen. John McCain has made 14 appearances on “The Daily Show”; Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has made three.

With that in mind, the online hub MoveOn.org sponsored a 30-second pro-Obama spot on MTV on Tuesday and on Comedy Central Wednesday night. It followed an anti-Obama attack ad broadcast on MTV last week that was paid for by the conservative group Let Freedom Ring. That political ad was the first ever to appear on MTV. The ads are a sign that the opposing sides are trying to court younger voters in unprecedented ways.

The median age of Comedy Central’s overall viewership, 29, is about half that of the typical viewer of network news shows. The median age for MTV is even younger, 22. Political analysts caution, however, that running a couple of humorous TV ads alone won’t win over younger voters.

“The conventional wisdom is that sarcasm plays well with young voters, but that’s not completely true,” said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, a nonpartisan Tufts University think tank that analyzes youth voting behavior. “The young person who is following the race is concerned about issues. So I’d bet that a serious issue ad that addresses the issues they’re concerned about would play better than a joke ad.”

Reaching young voters through humor was the intent behind the ad created by Let Freedom Ring, a conservative independent political group that placed the first ad on MTV last week. Let Freedom Ring founder Colin Hanna said MTV - where a third of the viewers aren’t of voting age - “reaches a young demographic, and it’s important for some of these people who have been uncritically supportive of Sen. Obama to come face to face with some of his credibility issues. And when you’re addressing a political candidate’s credibility, ridicule can be very effective.”

With the words “flip-flopper?” on the screen, the 30-second spot ridicules Mr. Obama as “worse than a flip-flopper” because he holds “two positions at once.” The ad also appeared on MSNBC, Fox News and VH-1. (The nonpartisan political research think tank Politifact.com found the ad’s charges about Mr. Obama holding multiple positions on the Iraq war to be false.)

After the ad ran, MoveOn.org sent a note to its members saying it was “outrageous” that the first “political ad that millions of young people will see is a negative attack on Barack Obama. The Republicans’ strategy is clear: Kill the hope that’s brought millions of new young voters out of the woodwork.”

In response, it raised $150,000 to air a lighthearted ad that spoofs the 1980s anti-drug advertisements that used a frying egg to remind viewers that “this is your brain on drugs.” “This is your brain,” a young woman says, holding up an egg. “And this is your brain on hope,” a young man says, holding up a young chick. The last few seconds are a screen shot of “Obama ‘08.”

Mr. Hanna said Let Freedom Ring plans to have more ads on MTV and possibly Comedy Central. Some will be issue-driven, without naming a candidate, and others will “draw distinctions between the candidates.”

The two sides might want to soften the way they describe those distinctions, youth experts say: Attack ads - such as one the McCain campaign broadcast on several cable channels Wednesday - turn off younger voters.

“Most will say negative doesn’t work, but if it didn’t, no one would use it,” said Jane Fleming Kleeb, executive director of Young Voter PAC, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates who reach out to younger voters. “That being said, going negative is not what I would advise a candidate to do with young voters. Above all, young people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. This generation of young people believes government does and should have a role in our communities.”

So while the McCain campaign made a splash with a 30-second ad mocking Mr. Obama as a “celebrity,” salting it with images of gossip staples Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, that might not resonate beyond the cable news shows. Later Wednesday, the Obama campaign released a TV ad titled “Low Road” that showed how nonpartisan third parties have debunked false claims made in McCain ads.

Comedy Central spokesman Tony Fox said the network would not air any political advertisements that were “character assassinations.” How does the network define that?

“That’s a good question. There’s no checklist,” Mr. Fox said, adding that the same department that decides its programming standards would set boundaries for commercials.

Spokesmen for both Comedy Central and MTV said their networks would consider political ads from unaffiliated third parties on a case-by-case basis.

The ads aiming at younger voters have the potential of missing their mark.

While Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly famously derided Mr. Stewart’s audience as “stoned slackers” four years ago, quite the opposite is true. Mr. Stewart’s viewers, along with Mr. Colbert’s, are the most affluent among late-night audiences, with a median income of $71,000, according to Comedy Central’s market research. The median age of a “Daily Show” viewer is 37. Studies also have shown that the audience is better educated than Mr. O’Reilly’s.

However, youth-voter experts say mass media advertising alone won’t work - it has to be combined with real-world connections, as young voters respond best to hearing from other young voters in person.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more TV ads aimed at younger voters,” said Heather Smith, executive director of the nonpartisan Rock the Vote. “But peer-to-peer is still the best way to reach a young person.”

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