One Man, One Vote, 300 Ads

One of the small joys of living in the electoral backwaters of Connecticut, is that I have not been subjected to any presidential campaign ads - at least not yet.

Voters in the swing states have had it much rougher. In Toledo, for example, the average household saw a presidential campaign ad about 300 times from March 4 to June 20. In St. Louis, the typical household saw such ads 280 times, according to the TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.

While Michael Moore has easily demonstrated there are at least 300 ways to trash George W., I seriously doubt there are 300 important platform messages from Sen. John F., so we have to assume that the besieged citizens of the swing states are seeing the same TV spots over and over and over again. Which means this campaign is essentially doing what every campaign in the past 40 years has done - dump most of its money into TV and pounding voters repeatedly with the same annoying messages. As MediaPost reported last week, it is estimated that only "1 to 3 percent of all political ad money spent this year will go online."



Perhaps one reason for this is that the media planners for the two campaigns haven't a clue what they are doing. According to one insider, "there is absolutely no strategy to what they are doing. They see what the other guy does and spend their money reacting in the same markets. If they guys were brand managers, they'd be out of work."

Not that the campaigns have totally ignored the most important emerging communications medium in history. MediaPost noted that Howard Dean did some online fund raising and launched a Weblog, while John Kerry announced his running mate, John Edwards, via e-mail. Both the candidates have web pages, both have used e-mail to fund raise and counter punch their opponents, and there was some token, online spending in a few swing states focused largely at women using Laura Bush as a stalking horse. But compared to TV spending, we might as well be right back in the '70s.

According to the TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, both sides are focusing their advertising on local newscasts and national network programs such as NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America." They also are spending money to advertise during syndicated talk shows, like "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Dr. Phil," and "Live With Regis and Kelly;" as well as game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" Since George W. is apparently pursuing male voters somewhat more aggressively than Sen. Kerry, the Republicans are placing more of his ads on TV shows men like to watch, like "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," and "JAG."

This seems to lend credence to the insider who says that the media efforts of the candidates are without strategy. While they might think their ads are "contextually placed" (kinda like Google) there is no assurance that the context will be appropriate (hey, kinda like Google). Just like Google can't discriminate between Saturn the planet and Saturn the car, there is little to no way to predict the "context" in which these campaign ads are seen. What happens when Sipowitz makes a remark about a buddy lost on 9/11 just as the station breaks into a George W. ad? Or some mother savages her kid on Dr. Phil for being a slut, just as John F.'s message launches? Or GMA closes a segment on the nth soldier lost in Iraq a few seconds before George W.'s smiling face appears on screen? Ads well placed on the Internet can deliver messages to men or women, but in contexts that can be controlled.

What about more precise targeting than local TV spots that rain down upon the just and the unjust? Without too much effort, the Democrats and Republicans could be using TACODA (which has the largest audience of any of the behavioral targeting companies) to send distinct ads to voters who have revealed their learnings through online navigation and/or survey responses. How much more effective is an ad that delivers content of real interest than seeing a general love-my-candidate ad?

The candidates could be using unusual rich media ads like United Virtualities' new browser or text mark-up products to stand out from ROS ads. They could be using ad networks like BURST! Media to target within categories of very specific interest. But all this takes time and, worst of all, thinking, often out of the box. Just like lazy-ass agency buyers who pay more for less to the broadcast networks each year, it is pretty easy to spend tens of millions in a few calls rather than to think through a more efficient, effective media strategy.

In my opinion, campaign spending this year is kind of like the candidates themselves - bland and unimaginative.

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