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The DNC’s phantom ad buy — and why it worked

at 03:40 PM ET, 11/30/2011

The Democratic National Committee launched television ads in five swing states on Monday to much fanfare.

The ads, which attack former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper, drew heavy media coverage with every media organization — including this one — writing about them and every cable television network relentlessly re-running them. Heck, even “Rock Center” — The Fix’s favorite new show — mentioned the DNC commercials.

While the ads drew massive attention, the amount of money the DNC actually spent on the ads was somewhere between “not much” and “almost nothing”.

According to ad buy information provided to the Fix by a Republican media buyer, the total spending by the DNC on the ads amounts to $21,930. Yes, that’s the total for ads in five states and the District of Columbia.

By any reckoning, that’s a paltry ad buy. For comparison purposes, the super PAC supporting former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has spent almost $1.5 million on two weeks worth of ads in New Hampshire.

Republicans cried foul — insisting that the buy amounted to a pittance that should never have drawn the attention that it did. And, as regular Fix readers know, we have long been against these sort of phantom ad buys that amount to little more than video press releases.

But, we are also firm believers in re-evaluating previous assumptions when it comes to politics to make sure we aren’t missing the next big thing. And the truth of the matter is that the DNC’s ad strategy paid off in a major way by taking advantage of the changing political media landscape.

Because the world of political journalism is filled to the brim with blogs, cable outlets and tweeters, almost any “ad” — particularly one that is harshly negative — is guaranteed to get a blast of free media that ensures that the chattering class will talk about it.

And, since the D.C. chattering class drives much of the day to day coverage on blogs and cable (you might not like it but it’s true), there’s no reason to spend $2 million on ads when you could spend $20,000 and get similar (if not the quite the same) results.

The DNC ad is best understood as an attempt to drive a storyline — “Romney as flip-flopper” — with the journalists who write and talk about this stuff every day, all day.

If you need further evidence of that strategy by the DNC, look at how the $22,000 in ad spending was disbursed. More than a third of the total — $7,842 — went to cable ads in the DC media market. (The DNC spent $1,651 on ads on Albuquerque cable and $2,002 on Raleigh cable, by contrast.) Who watches DC cable television? Reporters and pundits, that’s who!

Traditional media buys still have their place. When a campaign is genuinely trying to persuade actual voters, you can bet they will put real money behind commercials in states — or media markets — that matter.

But these phantom buys now also have their place in a broader advertising strategy too. (Web ads fall into this same category in our mind; aimed at influencing the conversation more than persuading voters.)

The success of the DNC ad buy — in terms of attention won — is a testament to the fact that big spending is not the only barometer by which success can or should be measured when it comes to the ad wars of 2012.

 
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