The men and women of Madison Avenue can’t believe what they’re seeing: During every commercial break, there’s a snarling candidate not seen since . . . the last commercial break.
To advertising executives, this onslaught of attack ads looks like a giant waste of money. It certainly runs counter to every risk-conscious maxim the industry has honed since the days of “Mad Men.”
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.
To ad execs, it’s as though the political advertising world has convinced itself and its clients that it’s barrage or nothing. “It feels like every two or four years, the same game plan or strategies are pulled out,” said Reilly, of Crispin Porter and Bogusky, which has created commercials for everything from Best Buy to Under Armour.
“It’s just shock and awe, and every professional knows there are more surgical-strike tools to get the most for your money,” Reilly said.
Some political veterans acknowledge that campaigns are stuck with “a blunderbuss approach,” said Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman who ran the House Democrats’ fundraising drive in the 1990s.
Matthew Dowd, who ran polling for George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns, conducted analyses after the 2004 race and, for his own information, after 2008’s. He was startled to see how dedicated political campaigns are to strategies that look like the past cycle but fail to deliver. “It’s one of the secrets that media consultants don’t want to say. A huge, huge, huge amount of what is spent is wasted, like 70 percent,” Dowd said.
“Because media consultants are such a powerful part of the campaign team, doing something different is very hard,” said Dowd, now affiliated with ABC News.
So they stick with what they did last time. “You don’t see a lot of subtlety or nuance,” said Ted Royer of Droga5, a New York advertising agency. “A lot of our industry is meant to flatter people or make them feel better, but political advertising seems solely designed to make people feel scared. And fear is a massive motivator.”
Nor do political campaigns spend much on making the ads visually appealing. “I’m sure that they have the money to make better-looking ads,” Frost said.
But with compressed schedules and the need to jump off breaking news, political admakers have little chance to be artful. “From a creative standpoint, I don’t particularly love that kind of advertising, the creeping-in-on photos, the quotes flying at you,” Royer said. Another typical format — the voter testimonial — is as low-tech as slapdash movie commercials that grab ticket-buyers emerging from theaters, Adgate said.
“It takes time to make commercials and it takes money, but a lot of the political spots are based on existing footage,” said Deacon Webster of Walrus Media, who doesn’t doubt that the political commercials sometimes work.
Consumer advertisers’ key criticisms of political advertising are its repetitive nature, which they view as counterproductive, and the lack of research into more targeted digital alternatives.
“If you hammer somebody over the head, you reach a point where people ignore it,” said Zach Kubin, a New York-based advertising executive who is among the young vanguard pushing digital media.
Adams, the Richmond executive, explained “wearouts” as an industry-wide understanding that there is some number of times an ad can be seen by a viewer with its impact intact. Three times is the standard, although some ads are so well crafted that they’re enjoyable after 50 views. Political advertisements almost never are.
“The unceasing barrage of this stuff, there’s no question it has a negative effect,” Adams said.
“It’s not a definite science,” Adgate said, “but there is a formula out there that marketers use that says we have to change our creative execution because this ad is getting tired.”
Political campaigns, according to the experts interviewed, have either not learned this lesson or decided to ignore it. Just as they have largely ignored the digital innovations that might counter some of the redundancy.
After the 2008 election, the Obama advertising campaign actually won one of the industry’s highest creative prizes, called the Titanium and bestowed at a gathering in Cannes. It was awarded for the breadth of the Obama for America approach — placing ads on video games, pushing updates by text and e-mail — that impressed the industry, more than any particular slogan or message.
The future will feature these platforms and more, as campaigns see what companies have learned about customers online and try to reach potential voters with targeted messages. “You can eliminate that level of waste, almost one to one,” said Adam Shlacter, a digital advertising executive who specializes in what he calls “multichannel marketing.”
Campaigns are starting to seek and find undecideds through their search behavior — the Web sites they visit, Kubin said.
If that online introduction becomes a match, the person will do more valuable promotion on behalf of a candidate than any 30-second spot can inspire, leading to tweets or posts of campaign talking points, images, video clips. “Consumers are very in control of brand message,” Kubin said.
But Reilly said political campaigns are failing to innovate because they are worried they can’t win without the 30-second attack ads they have used for so long.
“When certain things have worked, at least in some way, over and over, it’s hard to walk away from them,” he said.
Dowd, the former Bush pollster, agreed. “They’ve been doing it for 20 years, so they keep doing it,” he said. “Horse-and-buggy manufacturers wanted to keep making them, until it just wasn’t sustainable.”