On TV, It's Politics As Usual

As other ad dollars flow to the Web, campaigns keep betting on TV

Tonight, TV viewers who live in political battleground states—Montana, maybe, or Ohio—will spend commercial breaks, white knuckles on the remote, desperately fleeing the blitz of political ads.

Some may get sufficiently disgusted to turn off the TV and head over to their computers. While online, they may well be bombarded by pop-ups and ads, but few will hawk a candidate or cause.

Political advertising remains strenuously, and almost uniquely, devoted to broadcast TV. Despite other advertisers' mania for anything Net-related, as this election cycle enters its closing weeks, astonished station owners report political ad revenues are smashing expectations. This signifies either an incredibly backward attitude toward the selling of American politicians or proof positive that there are things the media superhero known as the Internet still can't do. Will Feltus, senior vice-president for media research at National Media, which bought George W. Bush's ads in 2004, cites Howard Dean's Presidential campaign to say that while the Web "can ignite the engines," an Internet-heavy political ad campaign "is not going to get you to escape velocity by itself." But it is still disorienting to hear, in late 2006, some of the nation's smartest political operatives making pre-TiVo—if not pre-remote control—arguments for the primacy of TV.

CANDIDATES ARE PERVERSE PRODUCTS. They are sold through ads notable for their unrelenting awfulness. A candidate's sole marketing aim is to win a plurality of market share on one specific day. This stamps a very strict sell-by date on the goods, and there is no upside in coming in under budget. In many non-Presidential races, you're selling a product that's unknown to wide swaths of the marketplace until shortly before Election Day, and insufficient time and money often precludes a months-long product rollout. Given the audiences broadcast still commands, "if you need to get to 51% in a short period of time, TV still makes a hell of a lot of sense," says Carter Eskew, the chief strategist for Al Gore's 2000 Presidential run. So campaigns still buy in bulk. "We had planned for the same amount of [political] dollars as 2004," says John Hendricks, vice-president for sales at Tribune Broadcasting's (TRB ) 25 mostly Fox and CW stations. Tribune blew past that figure in early September. Now Hendricks says they'll beat 2004's $25 million take by 40%. As of September 24, according to media tracker TNS Media Intelligence (TNS ), all political spending on broadcast TV was $710 million, which nearly triples 2004's non-Presidential TV spending. Web spending through July, the most recent figures available: $1.7 million.

To borrow a failed Al Gore catchphrase, powerful forces stand in the way of political dollars moving to the Web. One is the irredeemable squareness of American politics, which in many ways still seems stuck around 1950. Two-party politics tend to be risk-averse, especially when the margins are so close in key states. It's a truism that campaigns are better off focusing on sure-thing voters than expanding the electorate with the youth vote. Older voters are likelier to head to the polling station, and more apt to congregate around Fox News (NWS ) than Facebook. Politicos also say most Web surfers seeking political information are not persuadable, and visitors to blogs like Daily Kos or Little Green Footballs know damn well how they'll vote.

Which doesn't explain why political ads don't clutter CNN.com or Yahoo! News' front pages. Feltus says annoying consumers with pop-up ads may leave a potential voter disinclined to support a candidate. True, but exactly how much TV ads annoy voters, and how many of those ads are routinely skipped, are points of secondary concern to Democratic and Republican Svengalis. The first candidate to use the Web to win votes--and not just raise money, or rally the faithful--will come from outside mainstream political circles. As with everything else in politics, change won't come from where the consultants roost.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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