Harry and Louise on Steroids
The fundamental truth about political advertising is that it's never been particularly affected by gravity. Unlike other categories, political ad spending has gone up from election cycle to election cycle. Anyone who thinks off-year, issue-related advertising will wither once the current controversies have faded is betting against reality. "The notion there are off years" in politics, says Tracey, "has been proven completely phony."
There is nothing new about spending significant dollars on issue advertising in the year following an exhausting Presidential election. What's changed is the sheer scope of such spending. Ads against and for President Bill Clinton's health-care plan in 1993 and 1994 cost at least $18 million. That's more than $26 million in 2009 dollars, but chump change by current standards. Through mid-August, $436 million had been spent on issue-related ads this year. This already dwarfs what was spent in the last comparable post-Presidential election year of 2005—and bear in mind this is the alleged dog-days lull and that an actual health-care bill doesn't even exist yet to agitate for or against. Also, though I hate to remind you, the 2010 election machine is just starting to gear up, meaning an avalanche of candidates' ads soon will be landing at radio and TV stations across the land. Excuse me, did I say, "soon will be"? In several states—among them Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Mexico, and Virginia—they're already there, and have pushed total political outlays thus far this year to a bit less than $520 million. Meanwhile, the dynamics of such spending have been noticed, to put it mildly, at TV stations. "It looks to me like a record off-year" for political spending, says John Hendricks, an executive vice-president of Tribune Broadcasting, "driven by issue and advocacy money."
The overwhelming majority of these political ad dollars is being spent on TV. TNS data show that this year around 96% of political spending went there. (Forget the digitizing of the ad landscape when it comes to politics. As with the Obama campaign of '08, the Web is used almost exclusively to raise funds and push news to the already committed rather than sway the undecided.)
Public Strategies' Eller, for one, disputes that political spending is on an ever-upward trajectory. He suggests that one factor driving this year's glut of political TV ads is the downturn in television ad revenue, which positions politicos to negotiate better deals than ever before. But clearly more than mere pricing has led to a truckload of issue ads. While the $2.8 billion spent on political advertising in the Presidential election year of '08 didn't match what Procter & Gamble (PG) alone spent on ads, I suspect media executives are glad to have a category worth several hundred million dollars that's growing by leaps and bounds in an off year—and all the more so if they own a bunch of TV or radio stations in swing states.