Fear and Loathing of Campaign Ads

Nov 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Steve McClellan

Every four years local broadcasters collect a huge pot of political ad dollars, and the just-ended political season gave the industry its biggest windfall yet from such ads-close to $1.5 billion worth, almost double the $807 million that politicos spent during the 2000 presidential election.

But for nonpolitical advertisers and their media planners, the political season is often a nightmare of ugly images and sound bites that are to be avoided at all costs. Videos of war casualties or the World Trade Center towers collapsing and messages of inept leaders and terror threats just don’t make for a pleasant environment in which to sell toothpaste.

At least that’s the conventional thinking. But new research from Initiative, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies, and CNN concludes that planners ought to take another look. The research, conducted during the past 11 weeks of the campaign (and which included viewer surveys via phone and the Internet) concludes that viewers don’t think any less or more of brand-name-product ads that are mixed in with even the most negative political ads. And in some cases brands even got a little bump in positive perception-probably because they seemed so squeaky clean and coherent compared with the venomous political ads.

The Initiative-CNN research was the product of a venture the two companies called AdV.O.T.E. (Advertising Views of the Electorate). It included three separate phone surveys of 750 respondents taken in June, September and October. An Internet survey reached 2,052 respondents from Aug. 19 through Oct. 31.

Stacey Lynn Koerner, executive VP, research, at Initiative, said the findings are ground-breaking. “We’ve known that the environment gets a lot more cluttered during the political season and we’ve known about the pre-emption risks and tightening of the marketplace. The one element not known was the psychological impact on the brands running with political [ads],” she said. “The perception has been the environment is tarnished. But it’s not true.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t risks for the brand advertisers willing to share pods with politicians who are trying to bludgeon their opponents with accusations of misdeeds and malfeasance. Political ads do tend to spur channel switching. In research conducted during the primary season (without CNN), Initiative found that viewers were 50 percent more likely to surf when political ads aired.

So if your toothpaste ad airs in the same pod in which Sen. John Kerry is bashing President Bush for his mismanagement of the war in Iraq, does that mean your spot’s exposure may be compromised? Ms. Koerner admitted it’s a calculated risk but also cited data from the more recent study with CNN that showed that 39 percent of viewers said they switch channels when a political ad appears. And that’s fairly close to the norm for all commercials, she said.

Commenting on the AdV.O.T.E. survey, Greg D’Alba, chief operating officer of CNN Ad Sales, said, “The findings show that viewers are receptive to consumer advertising regardless of the tone of the adjacent political messages.” That’s a message CNN hopes advertisers accept at face value, and having an outside ad firm widely respected for its research as a partner should help. (In the interest of full disclosure, Initiative counts among its key clients CNN parent Time Warner.)

While broadcast TV still gets the vast majority of political advertising, CNN’s share of that advertising is growing. “For the first time we had a significant commitment from the two presidential candidates,” Mr. D’Alba said. Ad spending from election sponsors and advocacy groups is also up on the network this year versus 2000, though network officials declined to say by how much.

Initiative also found that brand advertising experiences better recall when spots are mixed with political ads, especially in news programs. That’s probably due to a sort of halo effect-political TV spots tend to have high recall, and averaged about 75 percent over the 11-week survey period.

Still, the findings present a tough choice for marketers-mix brand ads with political spots and possibly get higher recall and positive brand perception but risk losing the audience more prone to surfing when the political ad kicks in.

Some advertisers avoid having to make that choice and simply sit out the political season or cut way back on their spending. But many marketers don’t have that option. “If your client sells a lot of product in the summer and fall you can’t tell them to advertise less,” said Ray Warren, managing director at OMD USA, the Omnicom media buying arm. “You can tell them to buy sooner and maybe for a longer period of time” to avoid paying the exorbitant rates that are demanded when the market tightens as the political ads start to gush in, he said.

But according to Chris Rohrs, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising, consumer marketers missed a huge opportunity to buy national spot ads in September and October at bargain rates. Mr. Rohrs said that most of this year’s political ads aired in roughly 30 markets in key battleground states such as Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Iowa. The rest of the country-including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and big markets in Bush country such as Dallas and Houston-was relatively free of political ads and the negative environment associated with them.

Yet TV stations struggled to sell ads to core (nonpolitical) clients in September and October, Mr. Rohrs said. The preliminary September numbers show sales up only in the low single digits, “Well below expectations,” he said. “The planning model needs to be evolved for the political seasons, because the high political activity is in the battleground states.”

Outside of those markets, he said, “We had this great unused opportunity.” Inventory loads, pricing and environment for TV outside the hotly contested regions were by and large at normal levels, he said.

Lee Westerfield, senior media analyst at Harris Nesbitt, agreed, noting that the number of battleground states dwindled pretty quickly to a handful, “But the core advertisers didn’t know to jump right back into the mix.” Still, it’s a huge windfall for spot TV, which collects between 80 percent and 85 percent of all political ad dollars, Mr. Westerfield said. To the extent that core advertisers spend more in noncontested political markets, that would be icing on a pretty rich cake.