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U.S. President Barack Obama, right, speaks to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, on Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (David Goldman/AP Photo)
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, speaks to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, on Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (David Goldman/AP Photo)

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In U.S. election, road to White House is paved with insults Add to ...

Will no one think of the children?

The U.S. election is always an advertising blitz of massive proportions. But this campaign has left all records in the dust, with more ads airing, more money spent, and more of a negative tone than ever before. This week a video of a four-year-old girl in the swing state of Colorado reduced to tears by the Obama-Romney sniping, attracted attention on YouTube. Her desperate sobs, and weak comfort in her mother’s assurances that it is almost over, apparently spoke to many voters.

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This is the first presidential race since a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowed unlimited spending on advertising, and the effects of third-party investments are apparent: More than 915,000 presidential campaign ads have aired on national broadcast and cable television in the U.S. since June 1, up 44.5 per cent from the last election, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, an academic study tracking the campaign.

“The change in sponsorship is huge,” said Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University, who is involved in the project. “In a typical week, it’s 30 to 40 per cent of the ads being sponsored by outside groups as opposed to candidates themselves.”

It’s not just television that’s seen the change: campaigns and third-party groups such as super political action committees have become savvier about using the Internet as well. There have been 2.7-billion views of videos on YouTube mentioning either Obama or Romney this campaign, said Ramya Raghavan, politics manager at YouTube. Only 150-million of those views are for videos uploaded by the candidates’ campaigns.

“It’s pretty staggering,” she said.

Those ads have stood out for their extreme negativity. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, since the beginning of October only 11 per cent of ads sponsored by the Romney campaign were positive, and the Obama campaign had only 6.3 per cent purely positive ads. None of the advertising by Democratic groups had a positive focus, and those aired by pro-Republican groups only aired 1.2 per cent purely positive messages.

“We’ve been grappling with theories to try and explain [the negativity],” Prof. Ridout said. Some of it has to do with the current climate, – the economy, and the anger among many voters – but he also noted the uptick in outside sponsorship.

“Their donors want that red meat, for the cheques they’ve written,” he said. “And they’re not as accountable to voters [as candidates are]. They have names that are generic, and they’ll disappear after the election.”

But much of that outside advertising spending has connected with viewers, according to research firm Ace Metrix. The firm tracks the advertising effectiveness throughout the year (it publishes a list of the most effective Super Bowl ads, for example) and is now also tracking political ads. The results are based on daily surveys of more than 500 voters, none of whom can take the survey more frequently than once every two weeks. Participants are asked to rate each ad on a number of factors such as whether the spot caught their attention, whether they found it credible or relevant, and their likelihood to watch it again. It then scores the ads on a 950-point scale based on all those answers. The pool of voters are broken down by affiliation: 30 per cent identify themselves as voting “always,” “mostly” or “more often” for Republicans over Democrats; 30 per cent are the opposite; and 40 per cent are either Independents or not registered to vote.

What has it found? The ads that people rated most effective were overwhelmingly paid for by third-party groups, and almost every one in the top 10 was negative.

Watch the U.S. election's 10 most effective ads, by ranked Ace Metrix, here.

1. Stage

Sponsor: Priorities USA Action (pro-Obama) ; Score: 562

Mike Earnest, a former worker at a paper plant, talks about what happened when Bain Capital took over the plant, and he was asked to build a stage used to announce its closing.

2. Mosaic

Sponsor: Obama campaign; Score: 528

Attacks Mitt Romney’s track record on cutting taxes for the wealthy while raising taxes and fees for others.

3. Washington is Still Digging

Sponsor: Public Notice (conservative); Score: 526

Attacks President Obama and Congress for digging itself into a debt hole.

4. Care

Sponsor: CWA LAC (Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee – conservative); Score: 515

A doctor criticizes Obama’s health care legislation.

5. Missing Workers

Sponsor: Let Freedom Ring

(conservative); Score: 501Questions the idea that the unemployment rate is dropping by discussing the people who have given up looking for work, and are not counted.

6. Basketball

Sponsor: Crossroads GPS (affiliate of American Crossroads, a pro-Romney Super-PAC); Score: 499

A mother whose children cannot find jobs and who cannot afford to retire criticizes the current “job-killing debt.”

7. Table

Sponsor: Obama campaign; Score: 495

Barack Obama lays out his economic plan.

8. Voter Purge

Sponsor: Moveon.org (pro-Democrat); Score: 489

Discusses Latino voters being told they must prove they are American or be kicked off the voting lists, a practice it calls racist and challenges Mitt Romney to condemn.

9. Shona’s interview

Sponsor: Americans for Prosperity (pro-Republican); Score: 480

A Canadian, Shona Holmes, talks about seeking treatment for a brain tumour in the U.S. because of delays with Canada’s medical system that she says could have led to her death. The ad asks voters to replace President Obama to protect U.S. health care.

10. Doing Fine

Sponsor: Americans for Prosperity; Score: 479

Attacks President Obama’s statement that “the private sector is doing fine” as evidence that he is out of touch on the jobs issue.

Top-spending groups

The most effective ads are overwhelmingly financed by third-party groups, reflecting an election in which rules about Super Political Action Committees have had a major effect on fundraising. Here’s the effectiveness rating of the top-spending groups with their Ace score.

1. Let Freedom Ring, 471

2. Americans for Prosperity, 457

3. Crossroads GPS, 424

4. Priorities USA, 422

5. Moveon.org, 414

6. Restore Our Future, 404

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