The Trump Myth: TV Political Advertising Is Unnecessary

For months, we’ve endured headlines and comments questioning the relevance of TV political advertising as presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has accumulated an estimated free (or “earned”) media tally of north of $3.8 billion (The New York Times) by appearing ubiquitously – often with a phone call – on TV news programs.  

The candidate himself has been a leading skeptic, asking supporters at a rally, “Do ads work anymore?” (CNN).

Two pieces of supposed conventional wisdom seem to have emerged:  1) Trump is impervious to attack ads, and 2) television political advertising is obsolete.

To be sure, unfriendly ads during the GOP primaries didn’t seem to impede Trump’s momentum.  

But skeptics have persistently overlooked the elephant in the room: Trump is a TV celebrity. Down-ballot candidates in both parties, on the other hand, must distinguish themselves, given the high negatives at the top of the ballot.  

The second-guessing of the relevance of TV political advertising may reflect a collective schadenfreude expressed by various groups of people happy to witness the demise of TV advertising.

These include: critics of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision allowing unconstrained PAC advertising; print-media, concerned that most political advertising flows not to print but to television; and Silicon Valley people who dismiss political advertising as an antiquated lifeline for a struggling TV industry.  

What should be obvious to these critics and skeptics is that Trump’s success in the GOP primaries was the very embodiment of the power of television in politics.   

Lest we forget, “The Donald” had the benefit of more than a decade of weekly primetime TV exposure – heavily during the overlapping runs of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” That’s nearly an hour per week – more, in the recent seasons of prime-time exposure.  

You almost cannot buy that kind of recognition-building visibility.  

This gave Trump a running head start on his primary competitors and his ability to command a large social-media following. It afforded him a welcome mat from political talk shows — and it provided him a “wall,” if you will, of protective name-recognition armor.

In essence, Trump started the primaries on third base — yet many pundits assumed he had hit a triple.

The power of TV was first truly leveraged on the national political stage by JFK and embraced by subsequent candidates like President Reagan, who enjoyed the political benefits of his many years on “GE Theater.”

But if you’re a candidate lacking the jump-start of a lead role in a years-running network TV show, you have to get on TV.    

Hillary Clinton, like Trump, has great name recognition, and both share substantial negative ratings. When a presumptive presidential nominee is so unpopular, three dynamics emerge:  The candidate embraces message discipline; the candidate spends more heavily on TV advertising to drive up their positives and their opponent’s negatives.

Down-ballot candidates for the House, Senate and state houses, realizing they can’t ride the coattails of the top of their party’s ticket, spend heavily on TV.   

Here’s where Trump and Clinton have diverged: The Clinton campaign and supportive PACs, such as Priorities USA, have been geo-targeting ads in key battleground states.

Clinton has opened substantial leads over Trump in seven such states, according to a recent Ballotpedia poll. Indeed, Clinton ran more than 20,000 spots over a one-month period following June 8, and Trump, zero!

We’ve seen steady growth in targeted cable advertising from PACs in battleground states and in down-ballot state and local races on both sides of the aisle.

Earned-media appearances on cable news networks, and his name-recognition advantage, served Trump during the primaries, but, now, targeted cable advertising seems to be serving Clinton, and down-ballot candidates, well.

As for the future, when our political process offers us yet more candidates seasoned and promoted into the public’s consciousness by years on network TV, you’ll still see aspirants for major public office continue to find it necessary to supplement earned media with smart paid media, both to define themselves and their opponents.

“I don't even need commercials, if you want to know the truth,” Mr. Trump reportedly said during a recent visit to Maine.  He will learn whether he’s right – but it could be too late.

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