Political ads to invade local advertising time

Jul 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Breaking a movie in California? Selling back-to-school clothes in Texas? Unveiling a new-model SUV in Alabama?
Then you’d better watch out between Aug. 1 and Dec. 1, because politicians and their TV ad dollars are casting a long shadow over crucial spot buys in many important local and regional markets. And in every election contest, TV is the main battleground.
The race for Texas governor, for example, is between two deep-pocket opponents who are volleying waves of TV ads at each other and are in the midst of an intensifying “television ad war,” as the Dallas Morning News recently put it.
Texas is “out of control,” said Dallas-based Linda Pittman, senior principal, director of spot broadcast U.S., Optimedia International (U.S.), whose spot clients include BMW, VoiceStream and Terminix. “My opinion is if you don’t have to advertise in Texas, don’t do it right now.”
The forecast is for a hurricane of political advertising dollars-a total of up to $1.2 billion in just four months-flooding the airwaves in states and localities with the hardest-fought contests.
By government fiat, the politicos get the lowest unit cost for any ads running in the 60 days before an election, and all other advertisers- from retailers to airlines to movie studios and auto dealers-who haven’t planned well ahead this year just might find themselves out of luck.
“The prediction is that this is the largest, biggest spending political year ever in the U.S.,” Ms. Pittman said.
By comparison to that $1.2 billion Ms. Pittman expects politicians to spend in just four months, only around $3 billion total will be spent by advertisers overall during the same period.
Why such a torrent of political money in a nonpresidential election year? As the 2000 presidential election demonstrated, the country is almost evenly divided between the two political parties, so that for any given race in any particular locale just one more flight of TV attack ads might turn the entire election.
What that means this year is that many desperate politicians are foregoing their government-mandated lowest unit cost to pay higher rates, Ms. Pittman said.
Typically, stations set up a three-tier ad rate for the political window. The lowest unit cost political-season ad can be pre-empted with no notice and often no make-good, Ms. Pittman said, while the more expensive mid-rate ad can only be pre-empted with notice and often is made good. But with the most expensive ad of all-the so-called “fixed-rate bump”-“you’re going to pay premium and you’re going to make sure that you do air,” she said.
Back in January, Ms. Pittman strongly advised most of her clients to avoid the political crush by making annual buys. Typically, those that make annual buys vs. those that buy quarterly will save 10 percent to 20 percent in the rough and tumble of the political season.
“Even though the political window ends Nov. 5, you’re not going to see anything ease up until the first of December because there [are] a lot of advertisers out there who try to avoid the political window, so they’re advertising before and after,” she said. “And there [are] a lot of pre-emptions and make-goods that are being bumped … into two to three weeks after the politicals.”
The politicians want to be in news, particularly the late local news, and in prime time, with its larger audiences, Ms. Pittman said. The premium for a political season can range from 20 percent to 30 percent over the lowest unit cost, she said, and depending on the ferocity of the TV race in a given market, it can go as high as 300 percent over the lowest unit cost. In a previous political window, one Optimedia client who bought a news spot well before an election paid just $1,200; when that same client wanted to go on the air at the last minute at the height of the election season with another news spot, the cost was $3,000.
Of course, this coming political season is “one of the major contributors to the strong year that spot will have,” said Christopher Rohrs, who heads the Television Bureau of Advertising, which represents local broadcasters. The TVB recently revised its 2002 spot-revenues forecast upward, to a 7 percent increase over last year, partly because of the strong demand for political spots.
On the other hand, lowest unit cost political ads often displace better paying advertisers and can be “very disruptive,” Mr. Rohrs said.