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The strategy behind political advertising


Political advertising provides a window into the war room of a campaign, writes the author.


1/13/2012 4:34 am EST

Political advertising is our window into the war room of a campaign – the strategy and decision-making process. It is the “tell” of presidential policy.

A campaign’s ads show whether the fundraising was successful or not; spread the messages she believes will win the vote; and shows who and where these voters are.

Super PAC activity is part of this tell. Technically, Super PACs are independent operators. Functionally, however, they promote the interests of a candidate.

Ads give political reporters and analysts important clues about polls, fundraising and campaign focus groups. But this pool of information is often underestimated and overlooked.

Instead, political analysts usually discuss the impact of advertising on a presidential race in terms of states and dollars. In particular, money invested – ad purchases placed with television stations that have yet to be spent – in major primary or swing states.

This is the wrong framework. First, the battlefields are media markets – not states. Markets do not adhere to state borders. Florida voters, for example, live in 10 different markets. Commercial time prices differ from one to another.

Second, with respect to the dollars committed, known as “the competition”, it is important to know the media markets in which a campaign or Super PAC is being issued. That strategic decision is part of the tell – but not the whole picture.

It’s like counting bombs without knowing if they exploded on target. A placed ad purchase may not be fully executed for a number of reasons – for example, the advertiser may be bluffing or have decided to redirect resources.

In fact, competitive data only offers reassurance that the intent is to bomb.

Evaluating presidential campaign advertising in terms of competition and states means overlooking or misrepresenting most of the story. The real meaning of advertising lies in:

• Message and tone – that reflect a campaign’s survey research

• Daypart – The time of day that ads are shown, indicating the targeted voters of a campaign

• Spoofing by market, which, rather than dollars, is the best unit of measure for balancing advertising impact and the relative attention paid to various areas.


Knowing the identity of an ad sponsor is valuable – especially given the proliferation of Super PACs. However, in a multi-advertiser race, it’s more important to understand a sponsor’s message and how it is contributing to the climate of the race.

The results of the Iowa caucus, for example, track exactly how the advertisement has unfolded. Former spokesman Newt Gingrich was the focus of about half of all the ads that aired prior to the meetings, and the vast majority were negative.

In contrast, Romney wasn’t the only target of negative ads from his competitors or their super PACs. The second and third place finishers in Iowa were also attacked relatively little.

It wasn’t until Jan. 7 that a GOP candidate – Gingrich in the Columbia, SC Market – launched an ad that attacked Romney alone. His volley was quickly overshadowed by rumors that a pro-Gingrich super PAC would spend millions of dollars.

This snapshot of ad tone and focus in an Iowa media market says it all:

Tonality and focus are also key to assessing the impact of Super PACs and other outside advertisers. The more these external groups get into the fray, the more mixed the messages can get. They could undermine the effectiveness of a page’s advertising.

For example, in 2004 Senator John Kerry’s campaign and democratic groups spent more advertising than President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign and like-minded GOP groups. But the pro-Bush forces were more influential.

Assuming that most voters had already formed an opinion about Bush, they devoted their ads to discrediting Kerry. The Kerry campaign assumed the same thing about Bush and focused most of its ads on its own candidate. On the flip side, some of the pro-Kerry advertisers may have wasted their money downgrading views on Bush.

In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign set the tone for the vast majority of advertising in Obama’s name by controlling almost all advertising activity.

Citizens United’s decision, as well as the campaign finance reform law of 2002, has led to an explosion of reports from external groups. It rose from about 10 percent before the Campaign Reform Act to 25 percent in 2006 after it came into force. According to Citizens United, it doubled to 50 percent in 2010. Understanding this activity and how these groups’ messages are – or not – in sync with those of the candidates will likely be an important storyline in 2012.


Gone are the days when campaigns were advertised during many of the same programs and at the same times of day. News broadcasts are also gradually losing their dominance as the largest platform for reaching swing voters. In 2008, presidential candidates aired just over half of their ads on newscasts, up from 56 percent in 2004 and 64 percent in 2000.

Above all, the explosion of niche cable channels has blown up the program options for targeting specific voter blocks. Knowing what part of the day and what shows advertisers are voting for provides an even bigger window into who those voters are.


The number of spots, rather than dollars, is the best metric to measure the impact of advertising. A dollar spent in one market can mean something very different from a dollar spent in another.

For example, if an advertiser purchases $ 100,000 worth of advertising in the Columbia, SC market, voters in that area will see it. With the money focused on the more expensive Charlotte, NC, South Carolina market, voters who live in that market can use these advertisements in their decision-making. But the potential impact of those $ 100,000 differs widely in terms of the number of spots purchased and the number of voters who would see them.

Political analysts take care to distinguish between different surveys based on different methods, weights, and sample sizes. You should understand why it is important to do the same for advertising. Equating dollars across two media markets is akin to equating a poll of 400 likely voters in one state with a poll of 800 registered voters in another state.

So the way presidential campaign advertising is often discussed today is pretty much the least accurate way of presenting it.

The next time you’re tempted to say, “Advertiser X is spending YYY dollars in the state of Z,” say instead, “Advertiser X has the resources to afford airtime in the expensive Y market.” Or, “Advertiser X is on the air during Y’s broadcast / time of day in order to reach Z voters. ”

We expect about $ 3 billion to be spent on political television advertising in 2012, possibly more. That’s a lot of history to miss, a lot of strategy to decipher – and lots of reasons to get it right.

Ken Goldstein is President and Elizabeth Wilner is Vice President of CMAG of Kantar Media, an independent firm that analyzes the content and spend of campaign advertising.

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