The story so far: A panel of economists from across the political spectrum came up with a presidential platform they could all support. It was a platform that would doom any real candidate. So we created a fake one.
We tested out one of our key ideas — eliminating the mortgage-interest tax deduction — on a focus group. They hated it.
"Three quarters of your mortgage goes to interest, so if they eliminated that deduction it would be like you were throwing your money out the window every month," someone said.
But getting rid of the deduction would make homes cheaper, the moderator said.
"If housing prices go down lower, this is going to be very dangerous," someone else said.
Not to worry: With the help of Alex Tornero of the Strategy Group for Media we drafted an ad that they promised would help sell the idea.
We showed our focus group the ad, and they liked it. It didn't really convince them. But for a minute, we had them.
We also showed the ad to our panel of economists. They talked about what the fake candidate should have said in the ad. The economists make good points, but their points would never fit into a 30-second ad.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Is it impossible to explain a complex idea in a 30-second political ad? Well, that possibility has not deterred NPR's Planet Money team. As we told you yesterday, Planet Money created a fake candidate with the help of economists. The hope was that this theoretical candidate could advocate ideas that economists consider no-brainers but politicians shy away from.
And now, NPR's Robert Smith is going to boil one of those ideas into an ad.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The ad begins with a relatively good-looking guy who is wearing casual shirt, standing in front of a suburban home. And our fake candidate looks right into the camera.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's time for real tax reform to help the middle class.
SMITH: OK. OK. Let me pause this ad for a second because this is not language that any economist would ever use. It's actually pretty meaningless. But this ad is where we ended up. The project started, I swear, with a more noble mission of educating the public. We gathered economists from across the political spectrum, and we ask them: what can you all agree on? And they came up with a good list. And at the top was a pretty bold idea: eliminate what is probably America's favorite tax deduction.
DEAN BAKER: The mortgage interest deduction.
KATHERINE BAICKER: The mortgage interest deduction.
LUIGI ZINGALES: Mortgage interest is actually extremely perverse.
SMITH: Yes, perverse because the way these economists see the world, this deduction is a huge government gift to a select group of people, to homeowners. Owners save thousands of dollars a year on the taxes. And if you rent, you get nothing. Eliminating this deduction is pretty logical. It just sounds really bad when you put it in the mouth of a candidate. Hey, middle-class homeowners, I promise to raise your taxes. So we did what any real candidate would do. We went to see an ad guru...
JOE SLADE WHITE: My name is Joe Slade White.
SMITH: ...and asked him, how would you convince voters that eliminating the mortgage interest deduction is a good idea. White calmly explained to me that I completely misunderstand advertising.
WHITE: You don't want to push ideas down their throats.
SMITH: He got real Zen at this point. The way to sell something is to give the people what they already want.
WHITE: Every message that you want is already inside the voters. And so all you have to do is evoke that message. That's very hard and you have to do it well, and you have to do the research.
SMITH: In other words, get thee to a focus group.
MICHAEL GROSS: Well, thanks everybody for coming out. We'll try...
SMITH: A few days later, I am watching 10 undecided voters from behind a two-way mirror. Ipsos Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. kindly agreed to let us borrow a focus group for the night. Michael Gross from Ipsos is the moderator. And over the next hour, he explained our economists' plan point by point. When he got to eliminating the mortgage tax deduction, you could see people shaking their heads. Irene spoke up first.
IRENE: Three-quarters of your mortgage goes to interest. So if they eliminated that deduction, it would be like you're throwing your money out the window every month.
SMITH: And when the moderator explained that this could actually bring home prices down, another woman, Marilyn, got pretty mad.
MARILYN: If housing prices go down lower, this is going to be very dangerous especially for a society that's top heavy with baby boomers that are aging.
GROSS: You know, there were actually, like, economists that came up with this. I just wanted to read you a couple...
SMITH: People actually made sour faces when the moderator said the word economist. Another woman at the end of the table, Ava, she really hated the word that the economists were using: eliminate.
AVA: It's like anytime you eliminate something or get rid of it, it's going to backfire in a different area.
SMITH: Julia Clark from Ipsos was sitting with me behind the mirror, and she leaned in when she heard this.
JULIA CLARK: Those words scare her, and they wouldn't want to use those words in a communication.
SMITH: So don't use the word eliminate. Shh, we're about to come to the part where the group hears some actual ad language. We previously contacted an ad firm called the Strategy Group for Media. And Alex Tornero there offered to draft some copy for us.
ALEX TORNERO: You know, basically boil it down to a core, you know, its emotional core to get to, you know, what we can drive this message on, and it really is on this idea of fairness.
SMITH: Michael, our moderator, presented a few of Alex's ads to the group. And then he got to this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Its time for real tax reform to help the middle class. For years, our country has subsidized home mortgage payments, a deduction that benefits the wealthy and pushes up home prices for everyone else. It's unfair, and I believe it's time we end that deduction and return the savings to you by bolstering education, improving services for seniors and funding job training programs.
SMITH: Got to pop in here. The whole part about children and seniors, that's what the ad guys came up with. The economists did not say this. OK, proceed.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Renting, owning large house or small, American families deserve a fair tax plan that helps every home. I'm an actor giving voice to a plan designed by economists, and I approved this message.
SMITH: You can watch the whole video on npr.org. One of the guys in the focus group gave us a thumbs up. Even Marilyn liked the part about fairness. And remember, these were the same people who hated this plan a half an hour ago. But it turns out, the effect was fleeting. After the focus group was over, Marilyn said it probably wouldn't really convince her.
MARILYN: Wait a minute. What are they eliminating? How does that help? But in that quick moment it feels good.
SMITH: And in politics, maybe that's the best you can hope for. As for the economists, when I showed them the ad, I could tell that they were disappointed. Several lectured me about what should've been in there, what our fake candidate should have said - all good points that you could never fit into 30 seconds.
Robert Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.