The explosion in political advertising this year has functioned as a marketing campaign for all of political TV programming, boosting ratings across the board, media and marketing executives say.
Political advertising will be 50 percent higher this year than in 2000, topping $1.5 billion, according to industry estimates. Presidential spending alone has doubled to $417 million, more than twice the $206 million generated in the 2000 contest.
“In a era where a significant majority of viewers, and ultimately voters, get their information from television-in particular, the campaign commercials-television has not only made a difference but it is often the center of the story,” said John Rash, senior VP and director of national broadcast for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis.
Key evidence comes from the Presidential debates, which have shown dramatic ratings increases versus four years ago. Individually, virtually all networks have benefited. For example, for the final debate CNN saw a 46 percent increase in viewers versus the final debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. CNN also had a skyrocketing 82 percent hike in adults 25-54, its key demographic selling group to advertisers.
So-called 527 groups (for the tax code designation), such as MoveOn.org, the Media Fund and AFL-CIO, have not only been sponsoring their own ads in the presidential race but spun their paid marketing campaigns by generating news stories.
The Swift Boat Veterans, who launched a modest seven-TV-market anti-John Kerry campaign, is one major political group that has benefited from a volume of news stories-which has extended its message exponentially.
“They potentially derailed a $80 million-plus [Kerry] campaign with an initial investment of less than a million dollars,” said Campbell Mithun’s Mr. Rash. “This made it one of the most effectively political media buys in history.”
“But it cuts both ways,” Mr. Rash said. “The free media coverage of President Bush’s facial expressions in the first debate had a negative effect on his campaign-with no cost to the Democratic National Committee.”
The bulk of presidential political advertising is heavily targeted to some 17 key `swing’ vote states-such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, a project of the University of Wisconsin, 60 percent of U.S. viewers haven’t even seen a presidential campaign TV commercial.
This has some dismissing the political advertising-as-marketing argument. “It’s the closeness of the election,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP of audience analysis for Horizon Media, New York. “I don’t think it’s anything more than that. What’s driving viewers is a heightened sense of interest.”
Still, media executives say 40 percent of U.S. viewers are getting the heavily political messages-from paid and free media-which is fueling interest in those local TV markets, as well as contributing to national TV venues.