First, advertisers for consumer products have learned to be cautious about intruding into viewers’ living rooms; they don’t let a 30-second spot repeat too often for fear of wearing out their welcome among potential customers. Second, traditional ad firms pride themselves on production values, with storyboards so elaborate they’re mini-movies. And when these marketers decide whom they want to target, they aim to reach them and only them, often using digital means these days to link products to consumers with precision.
Political campaign ads, by contrast, are relentless. The visuals are often rudimentary, riddled with bullet points and littered with torn headlines. And although the spots are intended to target an audience of undecided voters, this costly advertising winds up in many other households, while spending on digital outreach is in only the single-digits as a percentage of dollars invested.
Not that everyone agrees that the advertising skills of Madison Avenue translate directly to politics. “You cannot compare a consumer product to a political candidate,” said Kyle Roberts, president of Smart Media Group, a GOP ad-buying firm. “For example, a consumer product doesn’t have a win-or-loss day.” Someone seeking a sale or “conversion” always has another chance, while candidates have only a single make-or-break moment. Several ad executives noted that while product pitches can be relentlessly seductive and sunny, political messages are often deliberately scary. “Political advertising is its own thing,” said Rob Reilly, creative director of Crispin Porter and Bogusky. “There are some necessary evils that go along. They’re not pulling punches.”
That’s why political campaigns try to dominate the airwaves, controlling the zone with volume and decibels. Or, as Roberts put it: “We knew we were going to reach people we didn’t need to persuade, but it’s worth that to reach the persuadables.”
As a result, spending on political advertising could total $9.8 billion nationwide this cycle, disbursed by 13,000 candidates, by one estimate. And that doesn’t include ballot initiatives, such as Maryland’s hard-fought gambling measure. “Seventy-five percent will be spent in the last seven or eight weeks,” said Brad Adgate, who analyzes the advertising industry for Horizon Media. Much of it, executives agree,
misses the mark
“Political campaign spots are among the least effective advertising on television,” asserted John Adams, the chairman of the board of the Martin Agency, a Richmond advertising powerhouse. He called undecided voters in swing states “a subset of a subset” who can be reached through savvier means than an onslaught of 30-second TV ads.